The field of health sciences is dedicated to studying the spread of diseases, identifying risk factors, and evaluating the effects of drugs and interventions at the population level. However, the recent pandemic has shed light on the urgent need for more specialists in this field. In this article, we will explore the role of health sciences researchers and why they are indispensable in promoting public health.
Who is a Health Sciences Researcher?
A health sciences researcher, also known as a public health scientist, is a specialized professional who generates and analyzes data based on evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based healthcare and treatment approaches rely on scientific findings and facts. These researchers provide recommendations on how to prevent illnesses, improve treatment methods, and enhance the overall quality of life while minimizing harm.
Health research encompasses a wide range of areas, including dietary guidelines, treatment protocols, screening programs, evaluation of new diagnostic technologies, smoking cessation policies, vaccination strategies, and more. Some studies aim to investigate the causes and factors influencing the spread and risk of diseases. Others focus on evaluating the effectiveness of preventive measures or the treatment outcomes of specific diseases, such as the efficacy of novel cancer drugs.
What Does a Health Sciences Researcher Do?
Public health scientists employ various research methods to study different aspects of health. Quantitative researchers, for instance, assess the effectiveness of drugs or vaccines, the impact of smoking on cardiovascular diseases, or workplace ergonomics on employee productivity.
On the other hand, qualitative researchers explore people’s concepts, opinions, and experiences to understand their health-related behaviors, which can hinder effective prevention and treatment methods at both individual and societal levels. They may investigate why some cancer patients seek alternative medicine instead of conventional medical care. In one such study, researchers found that alternative healers spend more time communicating and listening to patients compared to regular doctors. These valuable insights can inform subsequent studies, policy changes, and the creation of guidelines for patient communication, with their effectiveness being assessed.
Today, interdisciplinary projects in the field of health sciences are of utmost importance. Health sciences researchers can contribute to international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), specialized professional associations, biotech companies, pharmaceutical industries, medical clinics, technology firms developing health-related gadgets, and health-oriented start-ups. Their work plays a vital role in advancing healthcare and improving the well-being of both individuals and society.
Core Skills of a Health Sciences Researcher
While a medical degree may not always be required to practice public health sciences, understanding evidence-based principles and research methodologies is crucial. Proficiency in data collection and analysis methods, study design, protocol preparation, and accurate data analysis are key skills in this field.
Professionals in this domain should possess knowledge in biostatistics, epidemiology, public health, sociology, health economics, and bioethics. Moreover, a strong command of English is essential, as advanced scientific research findings are predominantly published in this language. The ability to write scientific articles is also vital, as it serves as the primary means of sharing research results and requires adherence to academic conventions.
Trends and Directions in the Profession
In Russia, the development of public health sciences as a distinct discipline is still in its early stages. However, the pandemic has underscored the shortage of qualified specialists in this area. Despite this, there are several promising areas within the profession that offer exciting opportunities:
- Health Technology Assessment: The growth of medical technologies and the wearable electronic device industry, including activity and sleep trackers and specialized devices for individuals with conditions like diabetes, has created a demand for experts who can evaluate their effectiveness and assess the balance of benefits and risks.
- Occupational Health Studies: Businesses require specialists capable of reducing costs associated with employee health. Neglecting workplace ergonomics, for example, costs companies over $1 billion weekly in the United States alone. Creating favorable working conditions can significantly decrease the prevalence of musculoskeletal diseases and reduce disability days. Research in this area covers a broad spectrum, from workplace ergonomics and indoor air quality to stress reduction and burnout prevention.
- Public Health Policy (Health In All Policies): This approach aims to consider the health implications of decisions across various sectors, whether at the national, city, district, or individual enterprise level. For instance, when designing a new residential area, incorporating bike paths and installing sports equipment contributes to promoting physical activity among residents. Additionally, proper planning of parking spaces and zoning can help reduce air pollution, thereby preventing chronic diseases and decreasing the risk of premature death.
The Historical Context of the Profession
In the past, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death. Research efforts focused on understanding their causes, transmission methods, and effective countermeasures. John Snow, one of the founders of the London Epidemiological Society, made significant contributions to public health by investigating outbreaks of cholera in England during the late 19th century. His work laid the foundation for studying disease outbreaks and implementing preventive measures.
With the advent of antibiotics and improvements in living conditions, the landscape of public health shifted. People started experiencing lower mortality rates and increased life expectancy. Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and HIV/AIDS, became the primary causes of death. Researchers faced new challenges in identifying the less obvious factors contributing to these diseases.
Chronic diseases demanded sophisticated analysis methods, systematic data collection, long-term observations, and specialized research designs. Some studies, like the renowned Framingham Study initiated in 1948, continue to this day. Scientists have been examining the influence of various factors on cardiovascular disease across generations. Furthermore, advancements in pharmacology and the development of new drugs have spurred the evolution of novel approaches to assessing their benefits and risks.
Becoming a Health Sciences Researcher
Numerous universities worldwide offer programs in public health. Prestigious institutions like Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Boston University, the University of California, Johns Hopkins University, and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden are known for their contributions to this field. In the CIS region, the Higher School of Public Health at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Alma-Ata has achieved notable success in public health education.
By pursuing an education in public health sciences, individuals can acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to become proficient researchers and contribute to the advancement of public health on both local and global scales.