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Public health researchers have often relied on descriptive epidemiology to organize and analyze various datasets with the view to understanding several issues related to variations in disease prevalence, incidence, and affected populations. As such, it is important to develop an adequate understanding of the dynamics of descriptive epidemiology and some of the most used terms in epidemiological research.
In epidemiology, descriptive statistics are used to understand disease patterns by examining three main elements namely person, place, and time. The ‘person’ component can be defined as the categorization of disease prevalence or incidence according to the characteristics of individuals or populations affected by the health condition. This categorization considers the demographic characteristics of individuals affected by the health condition, such as age, sex, gender, ethnicity, and race (Friis, 2009). For example, public health researchers can use this component to understand the prevalence of dental caries among African American children compared to the Hispanic population.
The ‘place’ component can be defined as the classification of a particular disease using the characteristics of specific geographical areas where the disease is most prevalent. This way, researchers are able to understand the geographic extent of the disease and also get clues on possible sources of the health condition (Friis, 2009). For example, public health researchers can use this component to understand why oral cancer mortalities are high in states such as Nevada, North Carolina, and Iowa. Lastly, the ‘time’ component can be described as the categorization of a disease according to the specific time-frame the condition occurred or was reported (Friis, 2009). For example, researchers can use this component to record the date of onset of reported cases of bacterial mouth infections for each of the victims in the community and then plot the onset of fresh incidences over a two-month period to develop an epidemic curve for the condition.
In epidemiologic research, prevalence is defined as the percentage of a population found to have a particular health condition that is of interest to investigators, while incidence is often used to denote the rate of newly diagnosed cases or the number of new cases of the health condition occurring within a particular time period. The population can be defined as all the units, individuals, inhabitants, or communities residing in a particular place that is of interest to researchers. For example, researchers might be interested in investigating the prevalence of oral cancer in a predisposed population (e.g., heavy smokers and drinkers, senior citizens, or people with low education levels) and how the incidence level (newly diagnosed cases) is affected by lifestyle behaviors or other health indicators (Chattopadhyay, 2013).
These concepts are at the core of epidemiology-based on the fact that researchers must be able to understand the prevalence and incidence levels of disease if they are to come up with possible control measures of the condition. It is also important to understand how population characteristics affect disease distribution and determinants. For example, researchers interested in addressing dental caries in a particular community must first understand the prevalence and incidence rates of the condition with the view to determining the distribution of dental carriers in the community and other predisposing factors (Chattopadhyay, 2013). These terms are related to public health by virtue of the fact that they not only allow for the assessment of trends in health and disease but also provide an enabling environment for identifying health problems to be studied and core areas that may be prolific for investigation.
Overall, this paper has illuminated useful information on the three major components of descriptive statistics and provided practical examples to reinforce understanding. Additionally, the paper has defined epidemiological terms and demonstrated how they are related to the study of epidemiology and public health.
Chattopadhyay, A. (2013). Oral health epidemiology: Principles and Practice (2nd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Friis, R. (2009). Epidemiology 101: Essential public health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.