Geographic Information Systems: A High-Tech Approach to Public Health

It’s one of the most famous stories in the history of epidemiology and public health: the London cholera epidemic of 1854. A local doctor, John Snow, began plotting cholera deaths on a map, allowing him to pinpoint the cause of the epidemic to sewage-contaminated water that was being distributed through a particular pump. When the pump handle was removed and the public no longer had access to the tainted water, the epidemic was contained. And the rest is history – public health officials and epidemiologists have ever since relied on mapping and spatial analysis to investigate patterns of illness.

Now, the modern technologies known as geographic information systems (GIS) are being employed to further public health studies, to map and find patterns in the distribution of health and disease in communities.

A GIS is a computer system capable of storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically-referenced data – that is, information that’s identified according to a specific location. For example, maps are being used to track obesity and diabetes. CDC data and mapping shows that 644 counties spread over 15 states represent most of the country’s type two diabetes cases. This has been called the “Diabetes Belt,” which stretches from Appalachia into the deep South. Data also shows that a few counties in Michigan have higher rates, as well as some regions in the West. The goal is to leverage this geographic insight, in order to address health concerns at the local level – although insights gleaned from GIS mapping can also drive decision making at the regional, national, and global levels.

Esri is the world’s leading developer of GIS technologies, and is a valued partner in American Sentinel’s computer science program. Esri has a GIS for Health & Human Services division that helps public health organizations and hospitals alike. Hospitals use GIS for accurate and relevant patient information as well as for marketing, planning, and community relations.

Public health on a global scale

Some epidemiological data is highly specialized and of interest mainly to high-level public health officials – like the World Health Organization’s influenza map, which currently shows Asia and Africa are at greater risk for widespread flu outbreaks. Another site, health-mapping.com, keeps up-to-the-minute maps that monitor water-related infectious diseases, focusing on worldwide water-related disease data that comes from the Centralized Information System for Infectious Diseases (CISID) database. The map also covers AIDs, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other diseases.

But for general audiences, there’s nothing like healthmap.org, which was founded in 2006 to help with disease outbreak monitoring. Created by epidemiologists and software developers at Children’s Hospital Boston, the Web site and a free mobile app called Outbreaks Near Me deliver real-time intelligence on a broad range of emerging infectious diseases for a diverse audience including libraries, local health departments, governments, and international travelers. HealthMap is unique in that it brings together disparate data sources, including online news aggregators, eyewitness reports, expert-curated discussions, and validated official reports, to give a comprehensive view of the global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. It updates constantly and disseminates online information about emerging diseases in nine languages.

For more information on how GIS systems might relate to you as a nurse, take a look at Geographic Information Systems for Healthcare Organizations: A Primer for Nursing Professions.

And if you’re interested in making nursing informatics a career specialty, this may be a good time for you to develop new skills and empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree from American Sentinel University, an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees.

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