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How to Become a Disease Expert
Posted by Emily Pazel

How to Become a Disease Expert

With a global pandemic sweeping the streets, scientists and medical professionals have teamed up together to create and implement safe guidelines for people to take steps to help slow the spread of the Coronavirus. If you have a social media page or listen to the news, you might have noticed that one of the world’s top leading scientists helping implement these strategies in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has a background in infectious diseases, which is a specialization in public health sciences.

So, what makes him qualified enough to help lead the nation through a global pandemic? Have you ever considered going into the field of epidemiology? Although a global pandemic might not be a common occurrence, we may find a rise in students interested in choosing a career path in this field, or more people learning about it to help keep their business open during a time where a virus is easily spreading person to person.

What is Epidemiology?

Six months ago, before the spread of the virus began, global pandemics were something you thought you would only see or hear about in a fictional movie. Although there was always the chance of something like this happening, the thought of a highly contagious and infectious virus spreading among millions of people was more likely found in a Hollywood horror plot than in real life. But now that it’s happening, we have to turn to the experts who can help guide us through these unchartered waters.

Epidemiology, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), is the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations. By definition, epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states and events in specified populations. In epidemiology, the patient is the community and individuals are viewed collectively. 

Epidemiology can be broken down into a few different categories:

  • Environmental exposures: Lead and heavy metals, and air pollutants and other asthma triggers
  • Infectious diseases: Foodborne illness, and influenza and pneumonia
  • Injuries: Increase homicides in a community, and national surge in domestic violence
  • Non-infectious diseases: Localized or widespread rise in a particular type of cancer, and increase in a major birth defect
  • Natural disasters: Hurricanes, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) and the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010
  • Terrorism: The attacks on the World Trade Center (2001) and the Anthrax release, which was later that same year

This branch of science helps us to understand how many people have a disease or disorder, if those numbers are changing and how the disorder affects our society and our economy. With COVID-19, the field of epidemiology is used every day to evaluate and deal with the growing number of positive cases, as well as how to go about reopening businesses, schools and organizations in a manner that is safe for everyone.

In order to educate yourself more on this topic, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has created a list of terms that you might want to familiarize yourself with:

  • Incidence: The number of new cases of a disease or disorder in a population over a period of time.
  • Prevalence: The number of existing cases of a disease in a population at a given time.
  • Cost of illness: Many reports use expenditure on medical care as the cost of illness. Ideally, the cost of illness would also take into account factors that are more difficult to measure, such as work-related costs, educational costs, the costs of support services required by the medical condition, as well as the amount of individuals would pay to avoid health risks.
  • Burden of disease: The total significance of disease to society, beyond the immediate cost of treatment. This is measured in years of life lost to ill health, or the difference between total life expectancy and disability-adjusted life expectancy.
  • Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY): A summary measure of the health population. One DALY represents one lost year of healthy life and is used to estimate the gap between the current health of a population and an ideal situation in which everyone in that population would live into old age in full health.

If you are currently in school or planning to go back to school, you might consider studying in the field of epidemiology. It also might be beneficial to learn more about it if you are a physician, nurse, veterinarian, etc., as it might overlap with your current responsibilities. Especially in today’s world, you might find yourself learning more and more about the subject than you expected. 

Who needs to know about epidemiology?

Often referred to as the “Disease Detectives”, epidemiologists search for the cause of disease, identify people who are most at risk, determine how to control or stop the spread or prevent it from happening again. Many times, physicians, veterinarians, scientists and other health professionals train to be efficient in this field as they may encounter situations where they also need to “Disease Detectives.”

Similar to investigators that are called to the scene of a crime, disease detectives begin by looking for clues. They start by gathering information by asking questions, such as: Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? 

After asking these questions and gathering data in a strategic manner, epidemiologists study the answers to find particular patterns or how a health problem was introduced. Epidemiologists also work to identify new diseases that have never been before, such as Legionnaire’s disease and SARS and the organisms that cause them. After this, they can use what they learned during the investigation to make recommendations to control the spread or prevent future occurrences.

In today’s world, the field of epidemiology is also making its way into school systems, where school administrators and teachers have to implement regulations and guidelines to keep children going back to school safe. Local and state officials, such as governors and city council, have also listened and taken into account the research and data driven behind scientists and medical professionals, as well as businesses, restaurants and other facilities and organizations that are trying to stay afloat while maintaining safe regulations. 

Journalists, who have now written dozens or more articles and news-related resources about COVID-19, also have to become more knowledgeable in the world of epidemiology. In order to provide true facts and inform the public in the best way possible, reporters, writers and bloggers have had to become more fluent in how the virus spreads, who the most vulnerable populations are and how to prevent further spread and reoccurrence of the virus. 

So, maybe you’re a physician who owns their own practice or an office manager working in a medical facility that needs to create and implement safe practices for your company. You can research and turn to your local officials who might be providing safe guidelines, or you can take matters into your own hands and try learning more about it yourself.  Regardless of the situation, the past six months has opened the doors to many opportunities for learning more about epidemiology and how we can help create safe instructions for our peers and loved ones to go out in public safely and continue with everyday life during this hard time.