Thursday, 22 March 2012

A perineal what?

Posted by Peter Tennant

You're at a party, tucking into a sausage roll (OK, a pineapple stick, this being a public health blog), and then someone asks: "So what do you do then?"

It’s the question I dread most of all.

I used to have a nice prepared answer: "I'm a health researcher". But aside from being a tad patronising, this didn't really hold up once I started to meet people who were asking less out of politeness and more out of genuine interest. So for the last couple of years, I've just taken a deep breath and declared, "I'm a perinatal* epidemiologist".

"A perineal what?"

I've heard many guesses. Skin doctor? The study of epilepsy? Something to do with epidurals? Sometimes I start talking about the etymology. "Epi comes from the Greek for people. No wait, that's demos. What was epi again?" But, as well as my complete incompetence with Greek, I find etymology to be one of those words that seems to send people scurrying off for another sausage roll. So now I tell them, "think epidemic".

According to A Dictionary of Epidemiology, it's "the study of the occurrence and distribution of health-related states or events in specified populations, including the study of the determinants influencing such states, and the application of this knowledge to control the health problems."

It's a decent description, but not one that's easy to fit between sips of wine. So usually, I find it's best just to give examples.

You remember last week when they said that eating red meat raised your risk of cancer? Or last month when we found out that women with diabetes had a higher risk of their baby having problems such as congenital heart disease? Well, that's epidemiology.

Of course, this is fraught with its own problems, mainly because most of these stories tend to be slanted towards death and destruction, leaving you at serious risk of being branded one of those boring scaremongers.

But the problem remains that this still doesn't really explain what I do all day. Even after a lot of discussion, most people still go away imagining I spend my day prodding study 'participants' and taking blood. In fact, in four years I've never actually seen a study participant, let alone prodded one. This is probably a very good thing for the participants.

So what does my day involve? Well, it varies. Some days I'm trying to describe a year's work in a couple of paragraphs. Some days I'm filling in forms. Some days I'm just thinking. But the days when I most feel like an 'epidemiologist' are the ones where I'm sat at my computer, staring at bright green and yellow text on a black screen. The days when I'm playing statistics with my favourite statistics software.

Stata - my favourite statistics software

 Unfortunately, nothing sends people scurrying off for another sausage roll faster than telling them you're a statistician.

*Perinatal, by the way, means 'around birth' – so I generally study things that happen in and around pregnancy. In fact, that paper about women with diabetes having a higher risk of babies with congenital anomalies is one of mine.


  1. This was a very interesting post, working in research as well, I think we can all relate with the cocktail party chat involving that dreaded question “what do you do”...thanks for translating what you do in such an entertaining manner :)

    1. My pleasure Lady3emg, glad you enjoyed it. Best of luck at those cocktail parties. And if you ever meet an Epidemiologist, go easy on them!

  2. I consider it a bonus that people scurry off when I tell them I'm a statistician.

  3. Nice blog Peter. You could mention 'epidemics' - might lead to another long explanation... but could be helpful. Worth a try?

    1. I do tell them to 'think epidemic' - but that introduces problems with them thinking I'm one of those glamorous infectious disease epidemiologists, alla Contagion

  4. Try telling them you`re a gastroenterologist....fancy another cocktail sausage?

    1. Hmm... Might be best to just say you're a doctor and leave it at that.