The main idea underpinning epidemiologic studies is that diseases do not occur randomly but always in accordance with certain factors and conditions. According to the representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018), epidemiology is “the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations” (para. 1). This study aims to identify the determinants of health-related events, associated problems, and to develop different forms of control and prevention of diseases. Epidemiologic investigations can take a variety of forms, one of which is descriptive epidemiology, which focuses on the explanation of “disease distribution, with a correlation of its frequency in different populations and in different segments of the same population” (Kulkarni, Singh, & Jalaluddin, 2017, p. 115). In this paper, the discussion of descriptive epidemiology, its components, and its application in nursing science and public health nursing will be developed to prove the value of this type of research to health disparities and at-risk populations.
The essence of Descriptive Epidemiology
There are different types of epidemiology: analytical, descriptive, and experimental. When the assessment of information is based on surveillance systems, statistics, and field investigations, this process is called descriptive epidemiology. Data about patients, their families, and diseases can be gathered by a number of different methods. This form of study provides researchers with the data to be able to answer such questions as: “What?” (the description of the disease); “How much?” (the discussion of rates); “When?” (time and extent); “Where?” (place); and “Among whom?” (person) (Fontaine, 2018). The interpretation of all these elements is at the core of any epidemiologic study and provides the possibility to develop a systematic approach to a health problem, identify at-risk populations, offer decisions, measure control, and test different hypotheses. Descriptive studies are often preferred by researchers in the first phases of their work and typically involve a number of specific steps: (a) the definition of a population; (b) the definition of a disease; (c) the description of a disease; and (d) the identification of study variables (Kulkarni et al., 2017). By following and completing these tasks, disease prevention is possible.
Using the results of observations and following the set definitions already given, descriptive epidemiology can assist researchers in identifying new information about diseases and the potential extent of public health concerns. As such, through this type of epidemiology, a research problem, question, and hypothesis can be explained. Merrill (2016) recommends establishing a research problem first and then creating several associated questions before, finally, formulating any hypotheses, using available associations and populations. One significant feature of descriptive epidemiology is the possibility to store information in different forms, including tables, diagrams, graphs, and maps. As a result, it is easy to identify the relevant groups of people, recognize diseases, and clarify the reasons behind a health problem or public health concern. According to Friis (2017), descriptive epidemiologic studies can aid the planning of needed services and create a solid basis for more complex research, while Naito (2014) places descriptive studies “at the base of the hierarchy of scientific evidence” (p. 435). However, some researchers sometimes prefer not to use descriptive epidemiology and choose to focus solely on more pure analytical tasks.
Descriptive Epidemiology in Nursing Science
With regard to modern progress and the development of specific factors such as the environment, globalization, and modernization, descriptive epidemiology may aid a variety of tasks in the field of nursing science. As has already been stated, new (emerging) and old health problems can be identified and discussed through the prism of descriptive epidemiologic studies. Researchers should understand how to report and monitor population changes, human behaviors, and personal treatment priorities and, from this data, produce valuable results and suggest solutions. Within nursing science, health-related and human-related processes are studied within special frameworks and theories. For example, nursing theories such as the Maternal Role Attainment by Ramona Mercer or the Need Theory by Virginia Henderson offer strong frameworks for nurses to generate new ideas and choose the most effective interventions and care, focusing on particular situations and patients’ conditions. Descriptive epidemiology, with its possibility to identify changes in disease and patients’ reactions to treatment over time, contributes to the development of new theories and the improvement of these frameworks.
Henderson introduced fourteen components of nursing care according to which nurses must work and cooperate with patients and their families. This Need Theory helps nurses gather reliable information about the health status of their patients, which can then be used to enhance the quality of patient care (Ahtisham & Jacoline, 2015). The role of descriptive epidemiology in this process cannot be ignored as it serves not only as the basis for data gathering but also as a model for the method of data analysis and interpretation. Human needs may change with time, and it is the task of a nurse to consider place, people, and period (time) to explain disease occurrence. For example, Brasel (2017) sees the connection between descriptive epidemiology and nursing science (trauma control and prevention) as an ideal opportunity to understand the impact of disease, including its geographical location, and identify opportunities for possible nursing interventions. A descriptive epidemiological framework can be used to identify the host (personal characteristics of patients), the agent (various physical or chemical issues), and the environment (the conditions which lead to the exposure to the agent) (Brasel, 2017). As such, nursing science continues to develop through the descriptive method chosen for epidemiology.
Descriptive Epidemiology and Public Health Nursing
The science of epidemiology, and the descriptive method specifically, should not be ignored in the field of public health nursing either. According to the investigations of Gouda and Powles (2014), which include the findings of Kirch, Gregg, Kuller, and Savitz, epidemiology is defined as “the science of public health”, or the main source of analytical tools that can be used by public health practitioners. The relationship between public health nursing and descriptive epidemiology has a long history, contributing to the development of new methods of care and the discovery of new health perspectives (Gouda & Powles, 2014). There are many conditions under which morbidity may be controlled, including preventive measures such as vaccination and immunization against seasonable diseases. Healthcare workers have to know when to offer services and identify which populations are at a higher risk of having a particular complication. In addition, education and support should be developed. Nurses can use the results of epidemiologic studies to improve public health knowledge and inform the general public and potential users of healthcare services about potential threats and treatment options.
One clear example of how descriptive epidemiology is applied in public health nursing may be observed during an outbreak of an infectious disease. As soon as a disease is reported as a serious problem for a population (both symptomatic and asymptomatic), the first steps include a discussion of what is already known about this particular disease, its transmission, and favorable settings (Friis & Sellers, 2014). Fact sheets with flu events are based on the results of epidemiologic studies, providing a succinct description of personal characteristics, location, and time. An understanding of these three components is important for any analysis of at-risk populations and potential complications.
Epidemiology Components and At-Risk Populations
There are three main components of epidemiology that can be used to investigate at-risk populations and quantify a problem: person, time, and place. Epidemiologists hold detailed files and histories of health problems of the population and investigate changes through time. These measurements are set by international organizations such as the World Health Organization and are essential for descriptive epidemiology (Webb, Bain, & Page, 2016).
“Person” is a component that includes the analysis of data about people, including their gender, age, and ethnicity. Davey pointed out that epidemiology is the collection of individuals, not the person themselves (as cited in Ozonoff & Pogel, 2018). As a result, such an approach helps to identify all people and recognize the characteristics that put a person at risk of having a disease. “Time” is another component that is crucial to epidemiologists. Seasonable diseases may be predicted, and precautionary measures can be taken. New medications and treatment methods are offered with time, making a disease less dangerous for a population. Finally, the “place” component refers to the extent to which a disease may spread geographically. For example, given some African countries are at risk of malaria and associated complications, descriptive epidemiologists recommend vaccination for people who are leaving or entering specific geographical locations.
In general, descriptive epidemiology is not a simple attempt to identify and describe a health problem and protect the population. It involves complex studies that measure diseases and identify personal, social and even economic characteristics of people and their predisposition to various diseases. This science is crucial for nursing science and public health nursing as it provides the means for practitioners to obtain the necessary information to protect and teach the population, and from which to calculate any further complications that could result in a decrease in life quality or even death.
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