Introduction To Epidemiology And Research Methodology March--June 2016

Posted on Fri, Feb 19 2016 10:42:00


This course, registered as a University of Stellenbosch Short Course, will take place over 13 weekly sessions 11h00 – 12h45, on Tuesdays, at SACEMA, starting on 1 March. (Some weeks will be skipped along the way by arrangement with the class.) The presenter is Dr Jo Barnes, Division of Community Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, Tygerberg. 

The course is open to University of Stellenbosch students at no charge. Enquiries may be directed to the SACEMA Research Manager, Ms Lynnemore Scheepers, email:, phone: +27(0)21 808 2589, who will ask participants to submit their details in advance. 

From the early years of the discipline, Epidemiology has been the name given to the study of epidemics. Epidemiology brings together many diverse skills. Clinical epidemiologists are often primarily concerned with outbreak investigations and contact tracing, while dynamical epidemiologists focus on modelling the mechanistic processes governing transmission in order to understand how individual level interactions lead to population level patterns. 

Classical or fundamental epidemiology (which will form the core of this course) is an essential grounding for clinical professionals, public health workers, and modellers. In contrast to the non-independence assumptions and systems approach of dynamical modelling (which demand nonlinear mathematics), classical epidemiology takes a reductionist line, assuming independence between individuals (or clusters) and seeking causal relationships between risk/protective factors and disease. It is necessarily rooted in careful study design to avoid sources of bias, and is closely allied with methodological developments in biostatistics that allow sophisticated analyses of diverse data sets. A mainstay of classical epidemiology is the randomised controlled trial, minimising the chance that a confounding variable is involved, and increasing the chance that observed relationships are indeed causal. Having established causality, there are of course still the underlying biological mechanisms to be understood.

Epidemiology is primarily concerned with the transmission of disease among groups or populations, while of course this has to be balanced by ethical considerations and concern for the health of individual members. The assessment or treatment of the individual patient is the domain of the clinician. The trends or changes in patterns of diseases and other health factors in populations are of particular interest to the epidemiologist. The study and estimation of rates is central to the discipline. The purpose of Epidemiology is to provide a sound evidential basis for policy makers, in developing disease control and prevention measures for groups of people at risk. The discipline also provides the tools to enable health care workers to develop the judgement skills they need to assess the quality of the vast amount of information presented to them in the course of their work, and to assess the potential impact of interventions.

Epidemiology concentrates on questions like these:

  • What are the determinants, distribution and frequency of disease?
  • Who gets ill and why?
  • What are the crucial differences between those who become ill and those who do not? (Both sick and healthy people are to be studied.)
  • How effective are interventions in treating disease, and in stopping further spread?
  • How effective are health services in addressing health needs? What information do they need to make decisions?
  • What is the risk assessment, and what is the threshold for action?