From Smallpox to Big Data: The Next 100 Years of Epidemiologic Methods

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Abstract

For more than a century, epidemiology has seen major shifts in both focus and methodology. Taking into consideration the explosion of “big data,” the advent of more sophisticated data collection and analytical tools, and the increased interest in evidence-based solutions, we present a framework that summarizes 3 fundamental domains of epidemiologic methods that are relevant for the understanding of both historical contributions and future directions in public health. First, the manner in which populations and their follow-up are defined is expanding, with greater interest in online populations whose definition does not fit the usual classification by person, place, and time. Second, traditional data collection methods, such as population-based surveillance and individual interviews, have been supplemented with advances in measurement. From biomarkers to mobile health, innovations in the measurement of exposures and diseases enable refined accuracy of data collection. Lastly, the comparison of populations is at the heart of epidemiologic methodology. Risk factor epidemiology, prediction methods, and causal inference strategies are areas in which the field is continuing to make significant contributions to public health. The framework presented herein articulates the multifaceted ways in which epidemiologic methods make such contributions and can continue to do so as we embark upon the next 100 years.

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