Epidemiology for Non-Epidemiologists?

Epidemiology is the basis for much of the work that goes into public health. From the research that gives us the evidence we need to conduct good public health policy, to the work that is done investigating outbreaks, we use epidemiology to help us understand what we are seeing. It’s a scientific branch (or a branch of medicine) that helps us distinguish between true associations and false associations of exposures and diseases.

I’ll be the first to tell you that epidemiology is not an easy thing to master. Not only do you need the right attitude and aptitude, you also need to have a mind that likes to think of all the possibilities in answering a question. In essence, you have to like to do puzzles. Because, believe you me, you’ll be really puzzled when looking at some of the problems that epidemiology tackles.

And don’t get me started on the darkest of the dark arts: Biostatistics.

Suppose you’re someone who wants to work in healthcare, and you already have a bachelor’s degree in something. Now, suppose you don’t want to do patient care. Instead, you want to do administrative work. What kind of a master’s degree do you need for that?

Many schools around the country are selling the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree as the degree to get if you’re going to be an administrator in a healthcare institution. Granted, they also sell it to you if you want to do research, disease investigation, or make yourself a better candidate for medical school. (The latter being something that really irks me, but is better left for a later post at a later time.)

I’ve been tutoring some students in different online MPH programs from around the country. They tell me their stories of how they landed in those programs and how they don’t want to be epidemiologists. Yet, because epidemiology is the basis of a lot of what we do in public health, they have to take courses in epidemiology. And, man, do they have trouble getting through the courses.

I’m not going to go into details of what their challenges are, because those challenges are varied. But I will tell you that epidemiology is not for everyone. So how do people who don’t have the aptitude (or attitude?) for epidemiology learn enough of it to understand how to read scientific evidence, how to identify confounders that might be biasing the results they’re observing, or to be curious about some phenomenon going on in their facility that needs to be analyzed?

For those students, I would design a very simple epidemiology course where only the very basics would be laid out in simple terms. This is easier said than done since there are accreditation standards that need to be met. However, I think it can be done. I think that such an introductory course could be prepared and delivered so that people not planning on be epidemiologists can understand epidemiology.

Until such a curriculum is created, we’re stuck with students who are frustrated and not doing well, discouraged about the rest of their studies. They will wonder if the degree is for them, after they’ve applied to get into the program and after they’ve borrowed a lot of cash to pay for it. Or, if they get through the program, we’re left with MPH degree holders who have such a hard time with the basics that the rest of their public health foundation is shaky.

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