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‘Epidemiologist’s job should be more than just contact tracing’
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2020.03.31 14:20
  • Updated 2020.03.31 14:20
  • comments 0

Korea needs to expand the power and the role of epidemiologists to relieve the chronic shortage of infectious disease control professionals, an expert said.

The issue reemerged at the early phase of the new coronavirus outbreak despite the experience of the MERS crisis, said Tak Sang-woo, a research associate professor at the Institute of Health and Environment of Seoul National University.

Epidemiologists should be given authority to lead the disease control, instead of focusing only on on-site epidemiological investigations, Tak said. To do so, epidemiologists should have “epidemiology research assistants” to reduce workload and make related organizations larger, he added.

Providing better welfare for local epidemiologists alone will not be enough to encourage people to apply for the job, Tak said at a YouTube show Friday by K-Healthlog, a channel operated by The Korea Doctors' Weekly. Tak had worked as an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Korea has about 130 epidemiologists – more than 70 at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and over 50 at local governments. However, experts point out that the appropriate number of epidemiologists is one per 200,000 population and that Korea needs at least 250.

Tak Sang-woo, a research associate professor at the Institute of Health and Environment of Seoul National University, speaks at a YouTube show Friday by K-Healthlog, a channel operated by The Korea Doctors' Weekly.

“We need a Korea-specific epidemiologists. Epidemiologists reveal their real value when an unknown disease spreads,” Tak said, citing the British epidemiologist John Snow as an example. Snow discovered cholera was transmitted by water in 1854.

Snow identified the locations of the cholera outbreaks on the map of London and found that the disease was related to a well, Tak explained. “Epidemiological investigation can prevent the spread of an unknown disease. We need to create an environment allowing such epidemiological investigations.”

‘Site investigation, research should be allowed for epidemiologists’

Professor Tak pointed out that Korean epidemiologists were too busy tracing contacts of COVID-19 patients and missing out on more important work. He proposed having on-site epidemiological investigation technicians to prevent epidemiologists from being overloaded with contact tracing only.

“I heard one epidemiologist has to tract the movements of 35 people. To do this work, they cannot do other important work. Who would apply for this job if an epidemiologist does contact tracing only?” Tak asked.

The government should train people for contact tracing and dispatch them to local public health centers in advance so that they can respond to an outbreak, he said.

Epidemiologists can “shine” in times of the COVID-19 outbreak. Still, it was a pity that they could not study sites and conduct more research to discover unknown things about COVID-19, Tak went on to say.

“Transmissions in latent period or asymptomatic transmissions became a problem but they could collect related data at the sites of the outbreaks,” he added.

‘Not high salary but vision for healthcare leader needed for epidemiologists’

The nation is suffering a shortage of epidemiologists because they face an uncertain future. Capable people can apply for the job only when they see an environment where they can start as an epidemiologist and grow to become a healthcare leader.

“Salary is not the key condition. People have to see whether they can still work as an epidemiologist after two years,” Tak said. “The government should show them a possibility that epidemiologists can take a significant role in the public health sector and grow as a leader.”

He shared his experience in the U.S., where an epidemiologist’s salary starts at around $85,000-90,000.

“The salary is not that high. Medical doctors, Ph. Ds and nurses get similar wages. But if they get a regular job after two years, their salaries double. A physician receives special payments,” Tak said. “However, they like to do the work they want to. Seniors tell them to find new work. With possibilities open, they try to give them a sense of achievement and curiosity."

To brace for a long-term fight against COVID-19, Korea also needs to give a break to healthcare workers and epidemiologists, Tak said.

“The government says they have to do something with a system, but they are making only announcements. Right now, they have to replace health workers and epidemiologists with another workforce,” he said. “A shift system should be settled and prepared to last for more than five months or a year. The government shouldn't just say health workers are working hard and do nothing.”


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