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What is Pharmacoepidemiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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Pharmacoepidemiology is an interdisciplinary science that combines aspects of pharmacology and epidemiology to study patterns of drug usage among large populations. Specialists in this field are interested in the effects of drugs on humans, how drugs are used, and other topics related to the prescription and use of medications around the world in a variety of settings. Several universities offer graduate-level education in pharmacoepidemiology for people who are interested in working in this field.

Researchers involved in pharmacoepidemiology projects can call upon a number of different skills. They must be able to compile, process, and interpret data in meaningful ways. Some people are experts in biostatistics and are familiar with applying statistical analysis to medical research. This skill can be used to convert thousands of pages of data into more succinct charts and short papers that convey critical information in an accessible format. Other people are more interested in field work, patient interviews, and the design of experimental studies.

People in this field look at prescribing patterns among doctors to identify trends such as spikes in prescription patterns and tendencies to prescribe more for certain populations. They also study patient compliance, doctor-patient interactions, and the role of professionals like pharmacists in patient treatment and recovery. Pharmacoepidemiology studies can be used for everything from developing new protocols for patient education about safe pharmaceutical usage to linking environmental problems with prescription drugs released into the waterways.

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An important aspect of pharmacoepidemiology is pharmacovigilance, a discipline that involves tracking medications currently on the market. While drugs are tested rigorously for safety and efficacy during development, it is not uncommon for problems to be uncovered after drugs are released on the open market. Pharmacoepidemiologists keep track of reports of side effects, deaths, and other problems. This information may be used to generate new safety warnings and prescribing information, and sometimes to pull a drug off the market altogether.

People interested in careers in pharmacoepidemiology can prepare early by taking math and science classes in high school and pursuing undergraduate degrees in topics like biology, pre-medicine, and pharmacology. For graduate school, students should look for pharmacoepidemiology programs carrying out research that dovetails with their interests. Experience in the lab and a history of working on research projects is very helpful for graduate school applications, as graduate schools tend to be very competitive and they can afford to pick the most qualified applicants. Strong letters of recommendation from people working in the field are also very valuable.

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