When many people think of healthcare, hospitals and nurses and doctors’ visits might be the only things that come to mind. However, healthcare is a vast field that includes many, many branches of study, influence, and practice.

Public health and health policy are areas that are concerned with the broad family of healthcare entities, how they work together effectively, and enact better policy-level decisions for making healthcare more effective and accessible. And within the landscape of public health exists a branch of healthcare that an even smaller number of people talk about epidemiology.

Though this under-regarded area of healthcare doesn’t always get a lot of press time, it is a vital cog in the way health ecosystems operate. And after the onslaught of COVID-19, the process of moving forward past a major world health crisis of this scope will require the expertise and help of epidemiologists like never before.

Understanding the Nature of Epidemiology

A few characteristics of epidemiology help distinguish its nature and purpose from other branches of medicine. Epidemiology refers to the study of how diseases, health issues, or adverse medical conditions affect large groups of people. This could range from communities to entire nations and can even include health trends across the world at large.

Epidemiology is a branch of medicine that falls under the realm of public health.

Public health is concerned with how healthcare functions on a broad scale. From understanding how health organizations and entities inter-operate, to influencing health access and awareness throughout communities or geographical areas at large, public health must be conducted with a deep understanding of how complex ecosystems work and how large, multifaceted organizations and institutions operate and affect each other. Epidemiology works at this level of understanding and influence.

Epidemiologists study data that helps illuminate large-scale health trends. Many of the concepts and concerns that have been highly publicized surrounding COVID-19 are ones that epidemiologists would know, study, and inform. Epidemiology is concerned with concepts like contraction and infection rates, herd immunity, viruses and other spreadable diseases, the long-term effects of contracting those conditions, and more. They may study societal phenomena like gun violence or mental illness. They study why these things occur, how they could be lessened or mitigated, and how healthcare institutions and entities could effectively collaborate to treat them.

Its high-level, strategic focus means that the study of epidemiology differs from other types of healthcare in one important way in particular: it is a healthcare discipline that serves entire populations and communities, not individual patients. Because the field concerns itself with a different framework than other areas of healthcare, this changes how it operates and adds value to the health ecosystem at large.

How Epidemiology Makes a Difference

Epidemiology is a vital part of the healthcare ecosystem and contributes important functions to healthcare at large. First, it helps inform everyday public health policy. Lawmakers, leaders in healthcare, and decision-makers in other areas of society including education, travel, business, trade, economy, and more all rely on insights that make sense of how widespread health problems affect their domains. Health policy is an incredibly complex landscape and the ways it affects society are far-reaching. Epidemiologists are a necessary part of the process.

Second, it aids in informing the process of disease management. Disease management refers to how healthcare providers structure treatment plans for those with diseases or long-term conditions. An intersection exists between how medical care providers stay up to date on best practices, especially for conditions that can be systemic or affect large portions of the population, and the ways epidemiologists glean information that can help inform their research.

As epidemiologists work to better understand health conditions that affect large numbers of people, their findings can inform the ways healthcare professionals treat those conditions at the individual level.

Third, epidemiology can provide real-time insights and guidance for preventing, preparing for, and navigating health crises that happen at scale. Any health issue that puts a large number of people at risk could be within an epidemiologist’s purview. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study of epidemiology was employed to better understand how the virus spread between people, moved across landscapes and populations and uniquely affected different demographics of the population.

For instance, knowing that COVID-19 proved more deadly for senior citizens was a crucial insight that helped inform how policymakers and other leaders took action. In that example, restricting outside access to nursing homes and prioritizing distributing early vaccinations to the elderly helped avoid outcomes that could otherwise have been even more deadly for the senior population.

As the world moves into a different stage in dealing with COVID-19, epidemiologists’ work will continue for the foreseeable future. They will continue to study data, analyze the actions employed by different jurisdictions and world leaders, develop strategies for mitigating negative or harmful effects should another pandemic strike in the future, and make their learnings accessible and digestible for decision-makers that will need to employ those measures.

Finally, one high priority for the field will be to become better able to predict and prevent future outbreaks. COVID-19 took the world by storm. The study of epidemiology is poised to help healthcare and policymakers more proactively detect future widespread health threats and implement swift prevention tactics to isolate and eliminate dangers.

Imagine the difference it would make if we were able to stem disease or virus outbreaks before they affected large populations. The potential for lives and resources saved would be unfathomable. COVID-19 cost the world not only millions of lives, but untold and incalculable amounts of time, money, stress, freedoms, and more. Better prevention abilities could change that in the future.

The types of health happenings that epidemiologists help illuminate are vast. Their work is a vital part of our healthcare and public health policy landscape. Helping the world react to health crises is only the beginning. As they work to better understand disease and outbreaks, the field will help advance us to a place where perhaps those outbreaks could be prevented altogether.

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Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her wellness and education knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practising yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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