Make GIS Pay Off for Private Health Care Organizations

GIS, or geographic information systems, has been of great use in public health circles for generations, ever since English physician John Snow tracked the source of a London cholera outbreak using maps nearly 160 years ago. Seeing physical location as a way to correlate and analyze data are important when what you study includes people’s well-being and the spread of diseases. Knowing the difference between populations and their conditions based on areas helps researchers compare health to environment and better understand how individual sickness can turn into an epidemic.

The power of such tools has been enough reason for many in health care to learn GIS. But there are sound business reasons to apply GIS in the health care industry, as GIS tools vendor Esri points out:

Health care providers can no longer afford to indulge in the “build it and they will come” fallacy. Health care is a repeat business. Though many hospitals and medical centers have operated under Reilly’s law of retail gravity–more square footage equals a larger trade area to draw from–they have begun to realize that to be competitive they need to be located conveniently to their customer base.

In other words, health care is not just a public service, but must also be an effective business to provide the care that is its fundamental mission. There are a number of ways GIS can help managers in the industry better direct their organizations.

  • Location analysis — No effective company would put facilities into areas without regard for customer demand. Yet many health care organizations do just that, whether choosing new sites or expanding existing ones. Plans should include looking at area demographics, to better understand the mix of services that are most likely to be required. GIS is a strong tool for such studies.
  • Competition — One aspect of being a business is that there are always other companies in the same line. That is true for health care. It’s a rare doctor, testing lab, clinic, or hospital that has a monopoly on offering care to local patients. With the advent of telemedicine that is becoming even truer. If care and traffic patterns suggest that the hospital down the road is exceptionally good at liver transplants, it might make more sense for another hospital to focus on different areas of strength, like pediatrics or orthopedic surgery. With GIS, managers can see specifically where they draw for different specialties and better understand the nature of competition.
  • Strategic planning — What services will clientele need as they age? Are there areas underserved by primary physicians that could use a clinic? GIS allows a health care organization to study the distribution of standard diagnostic codes, combined with demographic information, to identify patterns and trends that will have an impact on patient needs and desires.

Between economic pressures, changes in demographic makeup, and regulatory requirements, health care organizations need to sharpen their business focus. GIS can show them how … and where.

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