GIS as a Public Health Research Tool

A recent report shows that history repeats itself, at least in the area of geographic information systems. The results should help people learn GIS is a powerful tool when it comes to public health today. It’s appropriate, given that GIS really got its start in analyzing public health problems.

According to the current special issue of Technology and Innovation: Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors, public health researchers have found the database, statistical, and cartographic techniques and tools that are part of GIS of significant value, whether they are working in Alaska, Texas, or Nepal. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given how important a role that an early incarnation of GIS played in an 1854 cholera epidemic in London.

English physician John Snow, who is considered the father of modern epidemiology — the branch of medicine concerned with the distribution and control of disease outbreaks — mapped cases in a cholera breakout on paper. He saw a graphic pattern in the distribution of cases that lead him to the water source that caused the problem. What is even more remarkable is that this occurred before doctors developed the pathogenic theory of medicine. Disease was supposed to be the result of “foul air.”

Snow had to work on paper, but GIS in public health has moved far beyond those limitations. For example, University of Alaska Anchorage researcher Tenaya M. Sunbury tracked non-fatal falls in rural parts of the state and examined how easily citizens in Anchorage could gain access to healthy foods:

“Considerable potential exists for GIS to play a key role in Alaska and other rural places,” said Sunbury. “GIS has the potential to transform public health and bring the ‘public’ back to ‘public health’ by bridging the gap between complex epidemiological data and a variety of audiences.”

In Fort Worth, Texas, researchers looked at the difference in race-based health by looking at the availability of healthy food and recreation space in both “ethnic minority neighborhoods and predominantly white neighborhoods in the city.” The researchers said that GIS mapping provided the ability to combine spatial information from a range of sources into a single framework, but also emphasized that GIS should be used in conjunction with on-the-ground research and connections with neighborhood residents to gain the best understanding.

In Nepal, researchers looked at how topography influenced access to health services, clean water, and nutrition. GIS imagery and analysis showed how natural and manmade aspects of landscape could affect the ability of people to gain healthcare, with wealthier people at an advantage.

As populations grow and the economy becomes ever more global, GIS analysis will become increasingly important to public health analysis, strategic planning, and policy creation.

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