It happens over and over again as I listen to the radio or read the news. I hear about an aging parent issue or a disease that is increasing in magnitude. Or sometime it’s a health issue that is affecting certain groups of people or a new bit of research the describes problems with an intervention — one that I thought was working well. Invariably these stories make me ask why? Sometimes I ask a more personal question, “If that seems to work for me, how come researchers say is isn’t effective?”
In just about every case, I answer my question by learning more about the study of epidemiology — a field that explores and collects data about how diseases specifically and health issues in general occur and affect people and in certain places. Epidemiology measures by some period of time. This short video from the Centers from Disease Control explains more.
Epidemiology can be difficult to understand, especially because people, including me, tend to personalize the issues. Here are just a few questions to illustrate this personalization.
- What risk factors for exposure to hazards contribute to aging parent falls as individuals age (in fact we are talking here about people over 60)? Why don’t people worry environmental health problems and do things early on to prevent falls?
- How come after years and years, I’m suddenly told that yearly mammograms are less important?
- Why are men being cautioned to reconsider using prostate tests for routine cancer screening?
- Why are older seniors now being told to consider getting fewer screening tests such as colonoscopies as they age?
Like lots of people, I am trying to figure out why these changes come along or why some accepted practice in health care or preventive behavior is suddenly not a given anymore. That’s how I’ve come to write about epidemiology.
A year of so ago, when I tried to figure out the difference between causation and association — and to understand the issues in plain English — I was actually learning about epidemiology. Months later, when I tried to understand how, in a research setting, an analysis differs from a meta-analysis, that too was epidemiology. Just a few days ago I started to explore another issue, the investigation of a water wall in a Wisconsin hospital recently connected to an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease (post coming soon), and I realized that it was also about epidemiology.
Because lots of other people have the same questions that I have — aversion to jargon and occasional misunderstandings, I’ve set up my new Epidemiology 101 page where I’ll collect links to any of my posts that explore epidemiological topics. I have not studied epidemiology at all, so after I read and write, I’ll run my piece by someone who knows a lot more about public health, research, and analyzing data than I do — just be sure I am accurate.
One last thing. I revere science. I completed my share of science classes in high school and college, and I am a loyal Science Friday listener (NPR). Just because I disagree with something or because a certain issue resonates with me personally, I am not going to get angry at physicians and scientists, exclaiming that they don’t know what they are doing.
I believe that most of these researchers know exactly what they are doing, are committed to using science, and want to make the world a better and a healthier place. They cannot help if their findings are less than conclusive or encourage us to change our habits in different directions we don’t want to go.