GIS Technology Bolsters Health Care

GIS Technology Bolsters Health Care

The health care industry is using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to save lives. By analyzing geographical health care data, public health and hospital officials are able to make better decisions for patients and prevent disease outbreaks.

The health care industry has long mapped events. In 1854, Dr. John Snow, an English physician, used mapping for epidemiological research. Snow mapped locations of water responsible for London cholera outbreaks.

Since then, GIS has regularly been used in largely the same way, tracking diseases and contagions so governments can better track and respond to outbreaks.

For example, Wellcome Trust scientists working in Kathmandu, Nepal, have recently mapped the spread of typhoid and traced its source. Research was done by combining DNA sequencing technology and GPS signaling data and then mapping it out on Google Earth.

“Until now, it has been extremely difficult to study how organisms such as the typhoid-causing bacteria evolve and spread at a local level,” said in a press release Dr. Stephen Baker from the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam. “Without this information, our ability to understand the transmission of these diseases has been significantly hampered. Now, advances in technology have allowed us for the first time to create accurate geographical and genetic maps of the spread of typhoid and trace it back to its sources.”

In Australia, GIS technology helped researchers determine that rural women are more at risk for obesity and diabetes, while the U.S. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) uses GIS to track everything from suicide hotbed areas to exposure to chemicals.

In fact, the CDC regularly uses GIS in data collection, mapping and communication to respond to national crisis, including the World Trade Center collapse, Hurricane Katrina, Avian flu, SARS and Rift Valley Fever.

But, GIS is used for much more than just emergency response or tracking disasters. According to Esri, which has more than 5,000 health care clients worldwide, GIS plays a critical role in determining where and when to intervene, improving the quality of care, increasing accessibility of service, finding more cost-effective delivery modes and preserving patient confidentiality while satisfying the needs of the research community for data accessibility.

Human Resources

The nursing shortage has been well documented, but traditional HR routes don’t always work to find good nurses. That’s why Stanford Medicine used GIS analysis of nurses.

“Recruiters have had hunches for decades about which features—such as pay, shift, and location—would be attractive to nurses,” said David Schutt, who handles human resources workforce planning and analytics for Stanford University Medical Center, in a press release. “GIS analysis has once and for all laid the location controversy to rest. We found that the nurse comfort zone for Stanford University Medical Center is about a 12-mile radius. Looked at another way, this is also a retention factor.”

Since practically every external clinical professional at any hospital must be state licensed and registered, Schutt said it is easy to map the geographic location of nurses. GIS analysis and mapping of this external data, combined with internal human resources workforce data, provides an overview of the hospital nursing supply and demand, as well as employee commute patterns and distance traveled to work.

This knowledge helps anticipate and mitigate potential interruptions to continuity of care to avoid the astronomical costs associated with hiring and training replacements, Schutt said. “Because of GIS analysis, we can potentially free up approximately $22.5 million over the next two years that would otherwise be spent on replacement and training costs,” he said.


In this free Geomedicine eBook, Esri explains patients benefit from a more precise clinical understanding of the links between their health and where they live, work and play. There is currently little health-relevant geographical information available to the clinician, the book says.

But, that is changing.

The eBook’s author, Esri’s Bill Davenhall, argues geographical information will help clinicians better understand their patients just as they look for predispositions to diseases.

“Geographic place will provide the context within which the clinician can assess environmental factors and make judgments about diagnosis, treatment and prognosis,” Davenhall wrote. “Geomedicine has the potential to transform the way physicians see patients and the potential to provide a more holistic view of the many hidden factors that often defeat achieving successful long-term health outcomes.”