Do you want to be more effective serving your community? Would understanding how to put your data to work benefit your organization?
If you’ve collected data, chances are you could benefit from the insight of an epidemiologist. By discovering what an epidemiologist does, and how they work in the EMS industry, you can have a better understanding of the data you’re collecting and gain insight into the areas you want to make improvements.
What Is an Epidemiologist?
If you have data but don’t have an epidemiologist, it can be like doing your taxes without tax software or an accountant. Sure, you could probably struggle through it and get a number at the end, but did you find the best possible outcome? Possibly not.
Let me first answer what an epidemiologist does. An epidemiologist is defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as “a public health professional who investigates patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans. They seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education, and health policy.”Many people think all epidemiologists are experts on infectious diseases, but I got my start in the field working with injury prevention for the United States Army. When family and friends would ask me to look at their “rashes” or ask how contagious their child might be, I would usually give an answer of “I don’t know.” I could tell them what running shoes were best for their shape of foot, or what the appropriate amount of weight for a ruck sack was before their risk of injury increased. Diseases, on the other hand, were something that I hadn’t worked with yet.
Epidemiologists commonly have a master’s degree in public health, and normally you find most epidemiologists within the public health setting. Areas of focus such as infectious diseases, maternal and child health, environmental health, injury, occupational health and substance abuse are common to the world of epidemiology.
Recently, we’ve started to see more and more epidemiologists cross over to an EMS setting due to the ever-increasing amount of prehospital data being collected. No matter what field of work, all epidemiologists share several common job duties that can be translated over to the EMS industry.
Skills of an Epidemiologist for EMS
The skills of an epidemiologist aren’t as glorious as the movies portray, where you see the epidemiologist trekking through the jungle to find “patient zero” of a rare disease originating from a monkey bite; that sounds like an amazing adventure, but is just not the reality of the job.
The groundwork for an epidemiologist is data and research, but there are several phases of work required to produce effective research. There’s planning, data collection, analysis and communicating the findings to your audience. Without going through these phases, it’s like a paramedic showing up to a scene without an ambulance or equipment—patient care would be severely limited.
The planning phase of research is like prepping to paint a house, it might not be the most fun and can be time consuming, but it can make all the difference in the world with what the finished product will look like.
This phase not only includes planning for data collection, but can also include the need to acquire funding such as grants. Some epidemiologists have the experience of where to look for funding and how to write requests for these grants, but even more important is the ability to do the background research. This compiles information that already exists (or doesn’t exist) on the topic of interest to gain an understanding of how others looked at this information. This helps guide the entire process, from how to start the research to what the end goal is.
Data Collection & Analysis
When I worked as part of the injury prevention department for the Army, I spent many cold mornings at Ft. Carson, Colo., waiting for soldiers to show up to morning physical training so that I could administer surveys. We did this for weeks and asked about injuries, exercise habits and even the types of shoes they wore. We collected thousands of surveys that we used to then write dozens of manuscripts on the numerous variables associated with injuries. Their time was precious, so we had to make sure the questions were short, easy to answer and valuable.
Having the knowledge on how to collect data, what data fields are important to collect, and how to analyze the data, whether it’s from surveys, patient records, or EMS incidents, is important, but can also prove to be challenging.
This data can be used to improve patient care, efficiency and even provider well-being or skills. The results from this research can be used to answer very specific questions or more broad categories where several studies can results from one set of data.
Another common task is being able to communicate these findings to policymakers or stakeholders. When I initially chose to work in epidemiology, I thought I could avoid public speaking and that I could just work with the research and data, but to my surprise I’m speaking more than I ever thought I would.
There are several ways information can be disseminated: articles, webinars, speaking at conferences, manuscripts, websites, social media and more. It’s not just as simple as writing numbers down, but being able to interpret what those numbers represent and then share that information to varying audiences is essential.
Overall, an epidemiologist has experience and skills that can encompass the entire process of gathering data to getting it in the hands of others in an easy to digest way for actionable change.
The information and data you collect from a patient goes beyond the patient themselves and can be utilized for improving other patient care and establishing or changing protocols. Make a bigger impact within your organization and community by bringing in another team player: the epidemiologist.