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Descriptive Epidemiology in Nursing Science


Epidemiological studies are done to determine whether exposure or the presence of a risk factor is associated with a particular disease. There are numerous examples of how these types of studies are helpful in medical practices. For instance, it is known that hypertension is associated with stroke, smoking can lead to lung cancer, exercise can lead to fewer heart attacks, and toxins can lead to increased rates of leukemia. One of the types of epidemiological studies is descriptive epidemiology, which focuses on the person, place, and time characteristics. The purpose of this essay is to consider descriptive epidemiology from the perspective of its application in public health nursing.

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What is Descriptive Epidemiology?

The underlying premise of epidemiology is that a disease does not happen randomly. Characteristics that underline differences in incidence or prevalence of the disease within populations need to be detected and analyzed in order to prevent the spread of the disease. According to Costello and Angold (2016), “epidemiology is the study of patterns or of disease in human populations. Patterns, or nonrandom distributions, of disease occur in both time and space” (p. 1).

Descriptive epidemiology is one of the types of epidemiological studies, which focuses on the study of the distribution of diseases in a population based on specific determinants. Researchers note that descriptive epidemiology data is organized and summarized under three epidemiological variables: place, time, and person (Elimian et al., 2019). In other words, descriptive epidemiology is used to represent where, when, and to whom diseases are occurring.

The purpose of descriptive epidemiology is to identify the priority health issues and potential risk factors. It may be applied to monitor trends across time, evaluate policies and practices, identify outbreaks or epidemics, and determine the way of allocation of resources to best address health issues. Typically, descriptive epidemiological studies are precursors to analytic studies, so they help identify potential risk factors that nurse researchers want to study with a more substantial analytic study feature.

There are three determinants in the relationship to disease in populations: person, place, and time distribution. According to Stanhope and Lancaster (2017), there are numerous person variables, such as age, sex, race, and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES). Age is associated with multiple diseases and incidents; therefore, it is vital to make sure whether there are differences in the distribution of various age groups in the population. In general, mortality increases with age, and children of early ages are seen as high rates of diseases and death. Sex is another person variable that may influence a patient health condition.

According to Scommegna (2019), disability rates are higher among women than men of the same age. It can be related to a variety of reasons that might be significant, depending on what health conditions or diseases researchers are considering. For instance, there might be hormone-related differences, differences in life course exposures, risk-taking behaviors, and other factors. Race and ethnicity represent underlying differences in access to healthcare and wealth that may relate to disease risk. SES is another person variable, which is comprised of several personal characteristics, such as occupation, income, and education, which may impact on health indicators.

Place is the second descriptive determinant that is largely focused on geography. It is useful to use descriptive epidemiology focusing on location when researchers are thinking about identifying potential disease clusters or environmental conditions that relate to diseases. Place variables help determine where to intervene for good-quality public health impact, and it also may reflect social conditions. The last dimension of descriptive epidemiology is time, which is useful for identifying patterns, both short-term and long-term ones. Moreover, it is significant because it may help to determine whether there are any cyclical or seasonal kinds of trends in a disease. It can also alert potential problems when diseases appear at unexpected times.

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Application of Descriptive Epidemiology in Public Health Nursing

The example of place-based descriptive epidemiology analysis is a country-level map. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a descriptive study showing the mortality rates due to heart disease among adults aged 35 and older from 2015 to 2017 (Benjamin et al., 2019). According to the research, the most significant number of population with heart disease lives in the southeast of the US. Anyone referring to the territory of the country is at cardiovascular disease.

The results of the descriptive epidemiological study are visualized with a map displaying where heart disease mortality is highest across the US. The data obtained through the analysis give researchers information from a public health and healthcare services planning perspective. It also is helpful to identify which areas of the country might most need services specific to preventing and controlling heart disease.

What is Health Disparity?

Populations in many countries are becoming increasingly diverse, and, as a result, there are various types of patients that come to healthcare providers. All healthcare specialists have their inherent biases that they not even recognize, which can adversely affect the access to health services and its quality for a patient. According to Orgera and Artiga (2018), “health disparity refers to differences in health and health care between population groups” (para. 1). It is a gap in healthcare quality across various factors, such as differences in SES, sex, race, and ethnicity. Individual differences may impact the quality and safety of healthcare.

Numerous factors may contribute to health disparities in an at-risk population, such as education, stress, social and political environment, income, and others. For example, if people with stress-related symptoms fail to understand care instructions, they may or may not let their provider know that they have concerns. Pride, fear, or not knowing what patients do not know may keep them silent at the time when they need to speak up.

From the perspective of social class, it is common that access to healthcare and its quality get better with increasing level of income and education of a person. Researches claim that high-quality medical services are more likely to be located in wealthy communities, as opposed to poor or rural areas (Barr, 2019). Diseases are also more likely to spread within crowded living conditions. Consequently, the health of people with a higher SES is better than the health of those who have a lower SES.

Individuals with a low SES usually cannot afford expensive treatments and prescriptions. The race also has often an impact on healthcare equality. For instance, according to Carnethon et al. (2017), African Americans are likely to have higher morbidity and mortality rates than non-Hispanic whites. They usually have worse access to healthcare services, and the quality is also low.


Descriptive epidemiology is aimed to describe diseases and examine their distribution, whether be it by incidence or prevalence. It is a research tool that can contribute to several public health and other interventions, which are designed to reduce or prevent various health disparities. Descriptive epidemiology often provides information to health care providers and public health agencies. It allows local health authorities to strengthen disease surveillance that is critical to ensure appropriate healthcare services for people.

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Barr, D. A. (2019). Health disparities in the united states: Social class, race, ethnicity, and the social determinants of health. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Benjamin, E.J., Muntner, P.M., Alonso, A., Bittencourt, M.S., Callaway, C., Carson, A.P., … Virani, S.S. (2019). Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: A report from the american heart association. Circulation, 139, e56–e528. Web.

Carnethon, M. R., Pu, J., Howard, G., Albert, M. A., Anderson, C. A., Bertoni, A. G.,… Yancy, C. W. (2017). Cardiovascular health in African Americans: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 136(21), e393-e423. Web.

Costello, E. J., & Angold, A. (2016). Developmental epidemiology. In D. Chichetti (Ed.), Developmental psychopathology (pp. 1-35). New York, NY: Wiley.

Elimian, K. O., Musah, A., Mezue, S., Oyebanji, O., Yennan, S., Jinadu, A.,… Eteng, W. E. (2019). Descriptive epidemiology of cholera outbreak in Nigeria, January–November, 2018: Implications for the global roadmap strategy. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1264-1275. Web.

Orgera K., & Artiga S. (2018). Five key questions and answers. Web.

Scommegna P. (2019). Older women live longer, but with more disability and financial challenges than men. Web.

Stanhope, M., & Lancaster, J. (2017). Foundations for population health in community/public health nursing (5th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

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