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PLoS One. 2018 Dec 10;13(12):e0208442. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208442. eCollection 2018.

What is epidemiology? Changing definitions of epidemiology 1978-2017.

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Department of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control, Dijon University Hospital, Dijon, France.
Department of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control, Reims University Hospital, Reims, France.
Department of Medical Oncology, Lorraine Institute of Oncology, Nancy, France.
Department of human genetics, Dijon University Hospital, Dijon, France.



Epidemiology is a discipline which has evolved with the changes taking place in society and the emergence of new diseases and new discipline related to epidemiology. With these evolutions, it is important to understand epidemiology and to analyse the evolution of content of definitions of epidemiology.


The main objective of this paper was to identify new definitions of epidemiology available since 1978. Secondary objectives were to analyse the content of these definitions, to compare them with those used by Lilienfeld and to determine whether changes have taken place over the last forty years.


A review of grey literature and published literature was conducted to find the definitions of epidemiology written between 1978 and 2017.


102 definitions of epidemiology were retained. They helped to highlight 20 terms and concepts related to epidemiology. Most of them were already used in the definitions used by Lilienfeld. Five terms were present in more than 50% of definitions from the period 1978 to 2017: "population", "study", "disease", "health" and "distribution". Several developments have occurred: strengthening of the terms "control" and "health" already used, the concept of "disease" was less frequently encountered whereas the concepts "infectious diseases", "mass phenomenon" are no longer used in definitions from 1978 to 2017.


This evolution of content of definition of epidemiology is absent from books on epidemiology. A thematic analysis of definitions of epidemiology could be conducted in order to improve our understanding of changes observed.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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