by Mark R. Miller
My father is an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects), but I was always more of an etymologist (someone who studies words). And now I work for an epidemiologist. It’s a mouthful, and maybe that’s why people often refer to epidemiologists as “epis” or “disease detectives.”
Whatever you call them, they play an important role in protecting communities, our nation, and the world against health threats. They identify the causes, factors, and patterns of illness, determine who’s at risk, gather evidence to recommend preventive actions, and implement control measures. As a profession, epidemiology gets some attention for responding to major hazards like Zika, Ebola, and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, but every day, epis are addressing threats to community health like obesity, diabetes, cancer, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and preventable injuries.
Today the Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) released a study documenting a shortage in the field, especially in the areas of chronic disease, substance abuse, and infectious disease. The 27 BCHC health departments reported that:
- 1,100 epidemiologists work in big cities, protecting more than 55 million Americans.
- Most focus on infectious disease, maternal and child health, disaster preparedness, chronic disease, vital statistics, and environmental health.
- Fewer departments have epidemiologists working on mental health, substance abuse, and injury prevention.
- To reach full capacity, these departments would need a 40% increase in the number of epidemiologists, or 434 more. Specifically, they would need them in these areas:
- 121% increase in injury/violence
- 86% increase in maternal and child health
- 72% increase in chronic disease
- 66% increase in disaster preparedness
- 51% increase in substance abuse
The report identifies a number of challenges in meeting the demand for more epidemiologists, including these:
- Advocating for resources can be hard because many people don’t understand the role of epidemiologists or public health departments.
- While health departments often receive short-term funding to respond to a disaster or epidemic, there is a lack of sustainable funding, which makes it hard to recruit and retain employees. Many epidemiologists work under federally funded contracts, and funding can be delayed or cut.
- The positions for epidemiologists are often very specific, and it’s challenging to attract a strong pool of qualified candidates.
- There is a need for new skills in areas including systems thinking, informatics, data analysis, communications, community engagement, and cross-sector partnerships.
See the full report for detailed findings — Big Cities Health Coalition Epidemiology Capacity Assessment, 2017.