Epidemiologic principles: Uncovering actionable insights and real-world evidence

Optum_John Seeger_Web FormatYou may be surprised to learn how often you employ epidemiologic principles in your everyday life. The simple act of making a choice may involve applications of epidemiologic methods. For example, when comparing two breakfast cereals or deciding between two mutual funds to invest in, you might use a systematic approach to evaluate the pros and cons of each option before making a decision.

The practice of epidemiology involves a very similar approach, just expanded and formalized. The intent is to assess the available data and whether it can support making a fair comparison. The everyday expression of comparing apples to apples is an embodiment of this concept, and a reminder of how common it is. Epidemiologic principles and methods are applied in a feedback loop, informed by what is believed to be the underlying causal structure among variables. A study is then designed to fill in gaps in the knowledge, and results of the study either support or refute the original hypothesis, allowing for revision of the hypothesis and the opportunity to start again.

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of disease in populations and, for us at Optum Epidemiology, its practice focuses on conducting research to generate real-world evidence about medical product safety and effectiveness. It is a scientific discipline that seeks to identify and characterize correspondences between variables that can be measured from populations. An epidemiologic question might be, “Does drug X cause adverse effect Y?” This seemingly simple question implies many subtleties that must be addressed before it can be answered.

Members of Optum Epidemiology will be showcasing work at the 32nd International Conference on Pharmacoepidemiology & Therapeutic Risk Management (ICPE) in Dublin, Ireland, on August 25–28. Optum has a long history of attendance and participation in this conference that draws stakeholders from the three major pillars of pharmacoepidemiology — industry, academia and government.

At ICPE, we will be sharing ways we are helping our clients adapt epidemiologic principles to big data in order to arrive at actionable insights. By providing established structures for organizing and displaying data, we help ensure the right questions are being asked and that the data is being analyzed appropriately.

We offer epidemiologic consulting and tools that help tease out the associations between variables and facilitate decision-making. One example is the Systematic Tracking of Real Kids (STORK) virtual pregnancy registry, which restructures claims data in a way that allows more rapid judgment about the effect of drugs during pregnancy. STORK was the data source for a study recently published in the Journal of Pregnancy.

The International Society for Pharmacoepidemiology (ISPE), the conference sponsor and premiere society for pharmacoepidemiology in the world, is a growing society. As ISPE’s immediate past president, I am encouraged to see this increasing interest in comparative effectiveness research, big data and pharmacoepidemiology. I, along with Optum Epidemiology, look forward to the opportunity to connect at this scientific forum in a few weeks.


About the Author:

John D. Seeger, PharmD, DrPH
Chief Scientific Officer, Epidemiology, Optum

In his career as a pharmacoepidemiologist, John Seeger has conducted dozens of studies addressing regulatory drug safety issues across a wide range of drugs and disease conditions. Most recently, Dr. Seeger was an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the division of pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He also held a secondary appointment as an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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