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Updates from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation

During COVID-19 we are hearing terms that we never paid much attention to in the past, such as epidemiology. Epidemiologists focus on the root causes of health outcomes and diseases among populations. It is a scientific, systematic, and data-driven approach that looks at frequency, patterns, causes and risks of health related events.

Epidemiology dates back to the Age of Pericles in 5th Century B.C., and its Greek translation is literally “the study of what is upon the people.” Hippocrates distinguished between diseases that are visited upon a population (epidemics) from (endemic) which are those that reside within a population. The term epidemiology was first used to describe the study of epidemics in 1802 by the Spanish physician Villalba.

Public health events that are investigated fall into a variety of categories. Environmental exposures may include air pollution or asthma triggers. Infectious diseases may be caused by influenza (such as a pandemic) and pneumonia. Epidemiology also looks at non-infectious diseases such as an increase in major birth defects or widespread rise in particular areas of cancer.



Epidemiologists often work with public health departments on non-medical issues. For example, injuries such as increased homicides or domestic violence may be studied. Natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes in a region are often examined.

Often called “Disease Detectives,” epidemiologists study outbreaks of diseases, the causes, how communities are affected, and how relative information can aid in prevention of future outbreaks. Some epidemiologists are licensed physicians, but it isn’t required. Most often epidemiologists work at universities, for government organizations, the National Institute of Health, or the World Health Organization.



Duties of an epidemiologist include collecting and analyzing data through observation, interview and survey techniques. They are also responsible for communicating findings to health practitioners, policy makers and the public. Epidemiologists generally specialize in a specific area such as infectious disease, environmental health, mental health, and emergency response. An epidemiologist generally works in an office setting focused on studying data and reports. Scientists and technical staff are utilized to work in labs or the field.

Epidemiologists collect and analyze demographic information to determine who is at the highest risk for contagion of a particular disease. Sometimes, as in the case of cancer, they will look at the survivorship rates so effective treatments can be identified and repeated across the population.

During COVID-19, the key role of epidemiologists has been to estimate the burden of disease impact on the population. They have played a critical role in advising and supporting the works of state health populations by looking at trends that are occurring in the case numbers.

When the disease first appeared, epidemiologists went to China to conduct surveys in the community and health facilities. They collected nose and throat specimens for lab analyses. These field investigations identified those infected, when they became sick, and where they had been just before they got sick. This ultimately led to a possible source. The ultimate goal is to take data and information gathered to prevent future outbreaks from occurring.


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