Use GIS to Understand Primary Care Needs

Geographic and geospatial information systems have continued to prove themselves useful in health care. Whether providing new levels of sophisticated analysis in epidemiology, analyzing billing patterns for more informed financial decision making, or honing marketing, the industry has proven that there are multiple reasons to learn GIS.

As health care in the U.S. works to gain effectiveness and efficiency, providers and policy makers will need to better address primary care issues. GIS will likely grow in importance as a tool to make necessary decisions.

Now care providers can add another: to better understand the primary care needs of a given community. According to an article by Hazel Tapp, Ph.D., Department of Family Medicine at Carolinas Healthcare System, for the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, “Geographic information systems (GIS) have the potential to assess patterns of health care utilization and community-level attributes to identify geographic regions most in need of primary care access.”

As Tapp writes, one of the methods that the federal government is pursuing to improve health outcomes and reduce cost is to ensure that people get proper primary care. Early detection and preventative measures can reduce the need for later, more expensive intervention in personal health problems. But for this to work as efficiently as possible, it helps to know which groups and neighborhoods are typically underserved by care delivery systems.

Care providers need to build models to predict use and then adjust strategic focus and delivery to bring the underserved into the system. The models should help determine current and future health care professional staffing, develop new approaches to making primary care available, provide further data for policy decision makers, and evaluate steps taken to determine their efficacy and efficiency.

But any model is built on data, and this approach would need to incorporate information including “socioeconomic status, population density, insurance status, and emergency department and primary care safety-net utilization.” The mix of information would need to come from multiple sources.

Carolinas Healthcare combined GIS with an analytical hierarchy process (a “structured technique for making complex decisions”) and multi-attribute assessment and evaluation (a way to “analyze multiple attributes and combine data elements to positively influence decision quality”). The idea was to identify areas of the Carolinas Healthcare’s surrounding communities and identify those most in need of access to primary care services. Why GIS? Because the technologies “have the potential to assess patterns of health care utilization and community-level attributes to identify geographic regions most in need of primary care access.”

Working with the Mecklenburg Area Partnership for Primary Care Research and a number of local health care organizations, Carolinas Healthcare used hundreds of thousands of records stripped of personally identifiable information combined with demographic, socioeconomic, and insurance data. The result was maps that showed the greatest needs for primary care along with ideas of how to ultimately deliver it.

As health care in the U.S. works to gain effectiveness and efficiency, providers and policy makers will need to better address primary care issues. GIS will likely grow in importance as a tool to make necessary decisions.

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