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Episode #2: What is an Epidemiologist?

Updated: Apr 15


How do you explain your role as an epidemiologist to the non-scientific community?

As an epidemiologist, I often struggle with how to explain epidemiology to people who are not familiar with the field or my profession. I'm not sure when I've diluted the definition too much or when I've provided a little too much complex information. When I'm in a social setting and people are talking about themselves and describing what they do for a living, my mind is often racing for which versions of the definition of epidemiology will be the best to use in the conversation when it becomes my turn to respond. How do you respond in similar situations? What do you say? How do you explain your role as in epidemiologist in a way that is easily understood?

This topic was also posted in the community forum section of this website, so if you’d like to provide your response to my question I encourage you to do so.


Here are the highlights covered in this podcast episode.

Background and definition

  • CDC explains the word epidemiology comes from the Greek words

Epi – meaning on or upon

Demos – meaning people

Logos – meaning study of

has its roots in the study of what happens in a population

  • Although there are many definitions of epidemiology, the most widely accepted definition is provided by A Dictionary of Epidemiology (which is the definition used by CDC and WHO)

“study of the occurrence and distribution of health-related events, states, and processes in specified populations, including the study of the determinants influencing such processes, and the application of this knowledge to control relevant health problems”

  • The definition of epidemiologist is long, but key parts are as follows:

“A professional to has expertise in population thinking and epidemiological methods and is knowledgeable about public health, causal inference in health, and substantive matter relevant to the specific job.”

“The diversity of training, skills, tasks, interests, contexts, and professional ideological profiles is similar to many other professions.”

“…more or less emphasis in practice or theory on service, planning, policy, advocacy, research, teaching, individual and collective exposures and other causes, outcomes, methods, environment, social factors, biology, clinical medicine, specialty or transdiciplinarity”

“Epidemiologist show a rich plurality of scientific cultures and practices.”

  • Understanding the definitions of epidemiology and epidemiologist is not the same as being able to apply it in real settings and situations

For your own understanding

Ability to explain to others in a way that can be easily understood

your coworkers in different departments

colleagues and classmates who may not really understand your degree program or career goals

family members, friends, or others who are in different industries and who may not be familiar with public health at all

Summary of responses received

  • Most Common confusion from responses:

Confusion from the assumption that epidemiology somehow deals with the epidermis, thus making an erroneous connection with dermatology

Popular responses

  • disease detectives

  • disease control

  • public health specialist in disease prevention

  • using mathematical and statistical techniques, quantifies and controls the spread of disease

  • look at patterns of diseases in populations

  • investigate patterns of diseases in populations

  • examine how disease affects people in different ways and then look for ways to prevent disease and improve health

  • study disease outbreaks

Good tips for how to explain what you do as an epidemiologist:

  • Use analogy to help people understand.

Popular movies like zombie or movie about disease outbreak and explain the epidemiologist’s role in trying to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, understanding how it’s being transmitted, and preventing it from continuing to spread.

Using an example from a well-known association, like smoking and lung cancer, as a way of helping you explain your role as an epidemiologist

Using a well-known disease such as Ebola, influenza, a specific cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc

  • Use distinction between physician and epidemiologist.

Sometimes difficult for my colleagues who are medical doctors and epidemiologists (having both MD and PhD or MPH)

Try explaining big differences between physician and epidemiologist

Physician treats individual patients, one at a time vs epidemiologist focus on the health of populations of people

  • Find humorous ways to explain.

My colleague’s example: He tells people that he’s the guy responsible for sexually transmitted infections in his country then pauses for their reaction

Usually grabs enough attention to allow for a more complete explanation

  • Start with a simple straight-forward explanation and then look for their level of interest beyond that and continue if they appear to want to learn or hear more.

  • Develop the ability to be versatile in communicating with the populations you serve and the communities where you work.

Remember that education levels will vary within the communities we serve.

There is not always a need very scientific content or complex explanations but rather be based in common sense and be action oriented.

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