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GIS Technology in the Health Sector

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GIS Technology

Introduction

The astounding capability of GIS technology to enhance the healthcare industry has been realized over the past few years. Everyone agrees that health is important, but what is health? According to the World Health Organization, which defined health shortly after World War II as the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This holistic view integrates total well-being under the concept of health. Both the public and private sectors are developing ingenious ways to utilize data integration and the spatial visualization power of GIS technology. The type of organizations and companies that harness GIS capabilities span the healthcare continuum, from public health departments, public health policy, and research organizations to hospitals, medical centers, and health insurance organizations.

GIS in Health

GIS plays a vital role in improving the quality of care, increasing the accessibility of health care services, finding more cost-effective delivery modes, preserving patient confidentiality, and meeting the needs of the research community for data accessibility. Much attention in the history of medical geography has been focused on John Snow, the father of epidemiology. In 1854, the English Physician provided the ideal example of how GIS technology can be utilized in epidemiological research. He identified the water source responsible for an outbreak of cholera in London by mapping the locations of those afflicted. Today, the top applications of GIS in public health include:

  1. Immunizations
  2. Disease and Syndromic Surveillance  
  3. Public health preparedness and emergency response
  4. Human Services

GIS in Health: Immunizations

Firstly, GIS technology is applied in health by providing support in immunization campaigns around the world. The best example to illustrate this is the current situation of the COVID-19 disease. The most rampant questions public health officials need to answer are such as

  1. Where are the vaccines available?
  2. What are the vaccine rates in the area?
  3. Is our vaccination delivery network sufficient?
  4. Is there any clustering of adverse events?

All these are questions GIS capabilities can answer. Through the mapping of the available vaccination centers, one can be able to determine their location. In addition to, tracking and monitoring of the vaccine distribution metrics and trends are made possible since data can be collected and visualized using GIS capabilities, and later this information can be shared with stakeholders.

Vaccination Distribution Dashboard

GIS in Health: Disease, Outbreak and Syndromic Surveillance

Secondly, GIS is applied in health by providing support for disease surveillance. Most surveillance systems are electronic and include web maps that analysts and public health officials use to visualize outbreaks on the maps. Surveillance of case locations is effectively maintained and the geographic progression of the disease is monitored continuously. For the case of COVID-19, high transmission areas, for example gathering places that propel the transmission of the disease are more easily identified through maps, imagery, and descriptive metadata.

An Interactive Dashboard Showing COVID-19 Mapping

GIS in Health: Public health preparedness and emergency response

Thirdly, many public health authorities apply GIS in health, in that they have Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs). These EOCs are used to increase situational awareness, collaborate with other first responders, and mount a more effective response. In any emergency response, the EOC will ask many WHERE questions, such as

  1. Where are the people at risk?
  2. Where are the health assets (fixed, such as hospitals and clinics)?
  3. Where are the mobile healthcare resources (e.g., ambulances) and other first responders?

Health departments have begun leveraging GIS as part of their EOCs. Some are developing stand-alone applications that can help answer the questions of “where” during emergency response.

Health Facility Mapping

GIS in Health: Human Services

Lastly, there are astounding benefits of using GIS for human service agencies in terms of agency planning, data analysis, client information, policymaking and outreach. Professionals working in human services agencies ask where questions such as

  1. Where are the people who need help – those at risk?
  2. Where are our services located?
  3. What are the most efficient routes?
  4. Where should we send our employees today?

One of the primary business functions of human service professionals is to provide case management for their clients. Whether in an agency office, at their clients’ homes, or in other service delivery settings. The integration of server-based GIS tools with case management systems helps answer the where questions relevant to their cases and workflows.

Conclusion

Health is the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Harnessing the power of GIS capabilities can be of great benefit in the health sector. GIS is applied in Immunizations, Disease and Syndromic Surveillance, Public health preparedness and emergency response, and Human Services. All these health sectors have “where” questions, which have to be answered using GIS. Location will be an integral part of every health and human service.

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