Quite simply, Medical GIS is the application of Geographic Information Systems into the healthcare arena and fall under the broad “Health IT” umbrella. This, of course, just pushes the question back to what is GIS and what can it do for healthcare.
What is GIS?
The definition of GIS is “a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data” according to Wikipedia.
To put it in layman’s terms, GIS is simply placing data on a map.
The reason we place data on a map is that we have an almost intuitive ability to read and analyze maps. And there are other reasons as well.
Placing data of various types (e.g. sensor output, health records, location of medical centers) and from various sources onto a map limits the challenges of aggregating data. It reduces the need to massage all the data into a common data model. (In technical parlance, only spatial aggregation is required. . As long as the data have spatial attributes (e.g., latitude and longitudinal coordinates), it can all be displayed on a common map and sufficient for analysis purposes.
What Can Medical GIS Do?
So, GIS makes it easier to bring together different data types from different data sources. That’s great, but what can it do for the healthcare industry?
Honestly, at this relatively early stage of GIS applications in healthcare, the scope of medical GIS is limited only by our imagination. For example, our firm has been able to develop practical solutions within Medical GIS:
• Identify the best routes using roads and public transit between both population centers and rural areas to access existing healthcare service delivery locations (e.g., hospitals, urgent care centers, dialysis centers, cancer treatment centers, rehab centers, etc.).
• Identify the number of people living in a specific region (e.g., a state senatorial district) who are more than an hour away from healthcare service delivery locations.
• Identify the service delivery locations that provides maximum accessibility of a given population based on numerous factors, such as population density, employment density, available roads and public transit options – and many others. Real estate factors, such as zoning laws and enterprise zone tax incentives can also be considered.
What Else can be Done?
But again, medical GIS is limited only by imagination and much more can be done, including:
• Assess how healthcare spend is distributed across a region, to determine, for instance, if it is evenly distributed, or distributed in line with population demographics, disease patterns, or distributed after another fashion.
• Identify clusters of disease and/or medical condition outbreak – whether the Zika virus or something more common such as pneumonia.
What’s the Future?
Medical GIS is the health IT solution that just might work.
While electronic health records get all the attention, it’s the application of GIS technology to medicine that might truly increase access to more and higher quality data on the healthcare industry overall (such as where our dollars are spent, and how people access care). And this greater visibility will put us in a better position to actually improve population health in America.