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Types of Epidemiology Studies

Types of Epidemiology Studies

Below is a flow chart to help you understand how study types are classified. Each type is then discussed individually so you can learn more about its purpose.


Chart adapted from "MedPage Tools: Guide to Biostatistics"

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Observational Studies: Descriptive & Analytical Types

Observational studies involve no intervention other than asking questions and carrying out medical examinations and simple laboratory tests or X-ray examinations. In epidemiology, observational studies are more common than experimental ones, particularly if an investigator wants to determine whether an agent or exposure causes cancer in humans.


Descriptive Studies

Descriptive studies tend to be simpler and easier to conduct than analytical or experimental studies but they are nonetheless quite important. Descriptive studies can provide the background from which analytical studies emerge. They help to generate hypotheses, as opposed to testing them.


  • A large range of outcomes because no subgroups are studied
  • A large range of potential predictors again because no subgroups are studied


  • Not possible to study subgroups
  • No control for confounding as data is in aggregate form
  • Not able to reproduce/replicate results as data was not collected in an experiment with defined perimeters.


1. Cross-Sectional Comparison Studies: "Am I like my neighbors?"

Cross-sectional studies compare data that are combined from smaller groups as opposed to very large descriptive studies. These studies focus on observations made at only one point in time so they are quickly completed and relatively inexpensive. But they cannot reveal a sequence of events over time since they sample data only once.

Cross-sectional studies often simply compare the rate of a particular cancer in one place versus another place.


2. Correlation (Ecologic) Studies: "What if I am exposed to this?"

Ecologic studies look at diet and cancer at the population level, think of this as the view from 30,000 feet. These types of studies represent a transition to analytical studies since they compare cancer rates of populations in relation to risk factors. They do not include outcome so they aren't considered analytical.


  • The diet-cancer correlation
  • Following populations as they migrate to compare cancer rates


Ecologic studies can provide powerful clues pointing in a particular direction, especially when they compare large populations with different diets.



Ecologic studies can't prove cause and effect.

Scientists need more evidence from other studies to help prove the connection that ecologic studies point to.

Image courtesy of American Institute of Cancer Research    




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