Mapping a new future for GIS

May 31, 2014 in Medical Technology

Electronic health records are obviously critical tools for healthcare improvement, but they alone aren’t enough to truly transform patient and population health. As more and more IT investments go towards analytics tools to uncover trends and patterns in care delivery and wellness, one type of technology is starting to make inroads: geographic information systems.

GIS – it can stand for geographic information systems, as well as geographic information science – refers to the ability of computers to capture, store and present varieties of geographic data. According to Esri, a Redlands, Calif.-base GIS software developer, GIS technology “lets us visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns and trends.”

Clearly, few industries are better served by those capabilities than healthcare. Slowly, providers are realizing that GIS can help clinicians arrive at insights that wouldn’t necessarily come with just EHRs alone.

For instance, Brian Jacobs, MD, chief medical information officer at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, authored a 2012 report that applied GIS technology to EHR data to examine the prevalence of childhood obesity in three distinct populations in and around D.C.

“EHR provides a rich source of electronically accessible discrete patient data around demographics, race, age, patient address, vital signs, laboratory results, radiology results and healthcare provider clinical documentation,” Jacobs wrote. “As this detailed data are electronically available, there is an opportunity to aggregate, analyze and compare their geographic characteristics to related regional co-variables utilizing geospatial information systems technology.

“The use of GIS in the evaluation of EHR-derived data is of major significance to investigators as it permits geographic and co-factor specific targeting of epidemiologic methods, and, preventive and therapeutic treatment trials for patients with various conditions,” he added.

Another recent whitepaper spotlighted the benefits that can be achieved by integrating GIS into primary care practice. Ethan M. Berke, MD, associate professor of community and family medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, wrote in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine how “more advanced spatial analytic techniques allow for explorations of ‘hot spots’ or clusters of infectious diseases and malignancies.”

Beyond the obvious pop health applications, however, “we can go further,” he wrote. 

“Every individual lives somewhere and interacts with their built and natural environment,” according to Berke. “These responses to habitat, be they physical or emotional, define who we are and, importantly, impact our physical and mental health.” 

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