Epidemiology: Then and Now

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Abstract

Twenty-five years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, I noted that epidemiologic research was moving away from the traditional approaches used to investigate “epidemics” and their close relationship with preventive medicine. Twenty-five years later, the role of epidemiology as an important contribution to human population research, preventive medicine, and public health is under substantial pressure because of the emphasis on “big data,” phenomenology, and personalized medical therapies. Epidemiology is the study of epidemics. The primary role of epidemiology is to identify the epidemics and parameters of interest of host, agent, and environment and to generate and test hypotheses in search of causal pathways. Almost all diseases have a specific distribution in relation to time, place, and person and specific “causes” with high effect sizes. Epidemiology then uses such information to develop interventions and test (through clinical trials and natural experiments) their efficacy and effectiveness. Epidemiology is dependent on new technologies to evaluate improved measurements of host (genomics), epigenetics, identification of agents (metabolomics, proteomics), new technology to evaluate both physical and social environment, and modern methods of data collection. Epidemiology does poorly in studying anything other than epidemics and collections of numerators and denominators without specific hypotheses even with improved statistical methodologies.

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