Traditional epidemiology, modern epidemiology, and public health

Am J Public Health. 1996 May;86(5):678-83. doi: 10.2105/ajph.86.5.678.


There have been significant developments in epidemiologic methodology during the past century, including changes in basic concepts, methods of data analysis, and methods of exposure measurement. However, the rise of modern epidemiology has been a mixed blessing, and the new paradigm has major shortcomings, both in public health and in scientific terms. The changes in the paradigm have not been neutral but have rather helped change--and have reflected changes in--the way in which epidemiologists think about health and disease. The key issue has been the shift in the level of analysis from the population to the individual. Epidemiology has largely ceased to function as part of a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the causation of disease in populations and has become a set of generic methods for measuring associations of exposure and disease in individuals. This reductionist approach focuses on the individual, blames the victim, and produces interventions that can be harmful. We seem to be using more and more advanced technology to study more and more trivial issues, while the major causes of disease are ignored. Epidemiology must reintegrate itself into public health and must rediscover the population perspective.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiology / trends*
  • Humans
  • Public Health / trends*
  • Risk Factors