UNC faculty member urges academics to prepare for future of epidemiology

September 20, 2019

Dr. Andrew Olshan

Dr. Andrew Olshan

The field of epidemiology is experiencing a period of critical progress and new challenges. Recognizing evolving trends, Andrew Olshan, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, is leading renowned epidemiological researchers and thought leaders in an important examination of the field’s future.

Olshan, the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology, is editor of a 13-paper series – “Society for Epidemiologic Research: Reflections On The Future Of Epidemiology” ­­– published by the American Journal of Epidemiology. The series was inspired by Olshan’s year as president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, the oldest and largest general epidemiology society in North America, when he noticed an opportunity to proactively respond to the changes and innovations in the field.

“Our leadership team met to come up with some initiatives for the coming year,” says Olshan. “One of my ideas was to pause and reflect upon the future of our discipline and engage members of the society to focus on the current state of epidemiology in both big picture ways and on specific issues. We wanted to examine the current state of epidemiology as well as what the future looks like across a range of topics.”

As Olshan assembled leading epidemiologists to contribute to the journal, he focused on the role of epidemiology in public health, methods and technology, epidemiology, big data, training and education, the profession itself, and the role of epidemiology in infectious diseases and climate change — all issues that Olshan says are critical to emerging challenges in global health.

The introduction to the series acknowledges the “broad, diverse and sometimes conflicting viewpoints on what is important to epidemiology now and what will be important in the future. What can be gleaned from these viewpoints, how do they connect or diverge, and what are our overarching principles and goals?”

Olshan is lead author of the issue’s first paper, “Epidemiology, Back to the Future,” in which he explains that the role of epidemiology in public health has been an evolving conversation for decades. He cites publications from the 1990s — when the Society for Epidemiological Research was celebrating its 25th anniversary — that were already calling for greater momentum as the field entered a new era.

“This is a long-standing issue, and many epidemiologists have debated this before us,” Olshan said. “Because our field focuses more on methods and niche areas to solve the causes of diseases, there hasn’t been much agreement about what the role of epidemiology in public health should be, where it is going or how we should be working with other disciplines.”

Other papers in the series focus on methods and technology and “get under the hood of big data,” Olshan says, “exploring how big data relates to the methods we use to infer causes. We have to be flexible and prepared to adopt approaches and deal with challenges in big data and tech we haven’t dealt with before. This may change how we do certain things. Traditional concepts still hold, but some methods and approaches may have to be rethought.”

An ever-emerging issue is how training and education must adapt for the future of epidemiology. Some concepts are foundational, says Olshan, but those with traditional training must prepare to work differently with tomorrow’s students. In response, he is developing plans for workshops to create a “Blueprint for 2025” for population health and epidemiology that will determine the challenges and needs for future training and curriculum development in epidemiological graduate programs.

Olshan’s commentary calls on leaders from epidemiologic and other societies, academics, policy makers and accrediting bodies to work toward a precise, clear mission now for the epidemiology of the future.

“Together, we need to make a blueprint,” he says. “We must collaborate on it now, rather than leaving these issues for the epidemiologists of the future.”


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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