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GIS Helps Identify Environmental Health Factors

Theorizing about the impact of environment on health and conditions like an acquired physical disability is fine. But effective public health and social policy depends on having reliable data. A recent study by the Kessler Foundation underlines how data analysis and GIS training are important tools in healthcare.

GIS, or geographic and geospatial information systems, allow researchers and analysts to tag data with their relevant locations. Physical position becomes a nexus, connecting otherwise disparate data that can offer insight otherwise unavailable.

The Kessler Foundation, a nonprofit that works in the areas of disability and rehabilitation research, undertook a project that demonstrated a “link between environment and inclusion for adults with disabilities.” The results of the work appeared in the Annals of Epidemiology.

The study followed 508 adults with acquired disabilities in New Jersey and looked at their participation in their communities as well as neighborhood land use and conditions. Here’s what research scientist Dr. Amanda Botticello said about the work:

Studies show that neighborhood characteristics such as poor street conditions, homogeneous land use, traffic, and ambient hazards are largely predictive of more reported health problems, functional limitations, inactivity, and social isolation among older adults. The objective was to look at the impact of the built environment (or the physical features of geographic areas) on the members of the disabled population who are not generally visible in population-based studies, such as persons with chronic spinal cord injury. This line of research may help delineate factors that affect how well a person with an acquired physical disability adjusts to living in the community.

The researchers geocoded the addresses of the adults so they could compare information from the national Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems database with GIS data on land use and destinations. The data analysis suggested that when people were in areas with significant open space, they were more likely to enjoy “full physical, occupational, and social participation.”

On the other hand, those who were in areas with a large land use mix — residential, business, and industrial — were less likely to be fully participating in the surrounding community.

The information apparently did not explain why mixed use was less conducive to full participation or why more open space would encourage participation. But knowing the link could provide the impetus for further investigation. Even without additional analysis, the results suggest that professionals and policymakers who want to encourage full social participation of those with physical disabilities need to consider the physical characteristics of the places where people live.

This type of analysis is possible because of the combination of increased computing power, sophistication of GIS tools, and increased use of GIS techniques and analysis in the healthcare field.

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