Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been gaining more attention as cross-industry capabilities and awareness have become more widespread. You may be thinking, I’ve heard the term, but what exactly is GIS and how can it be used? Forrester defines GIS as a, “collection of integrated hardware and software technologies that digitally capture, manage, and manipulate a wide array of spatially referenced data types to output meaningful analysis and visuals.” It uses analytical tools to explore the spatial relationships, patterns, and processes of cultural, biological, demographic, economic, geographic, and physical phenomena. The healthcare industry has recently taken greater interest in this technology. It can be used for healthcare applications to analyze: patients, demographic information, accessibility, healthcare facilities, community resources, and disease prevalence. As a consultant at a business technology firm which specializes in the healthcare industry, we have been very involved in the use of this technology to help our clients provide a one-stop shop for their customers to relay information.
As more of the capabilities are coming into fruition, health care and health plans are becoming more interested in the use of the technology to improve and nurture patient relationships through effective data usage.
GIS capabilities for health care and health plans include:
- Analyzing geographic regions and populations to determine what specific areas need to be targeted for health care improvement and what the particular need is
- Locating health care services through location, ratings, and offerings
- Locating health care facilities based on benefits and coverage, correlated to cost
- Locating transportation services (bus line, taxis, etc.) to get to a healthcare facility
- Analyzing uninsured low-income population and access to programs that provide financial support or low-cost services
- Using claims data to analyze incidence of specific diseases
- Visualizing versus traditional searches (patients or health plans can have a visual of the healthcare facility)
- Marketing of particular health care services based on GIS research and findings
- Mapping changes over time to predict future conditions or analyzing the results of a decision 
- Profiling community health
- Accessing patient data (addresses, zip codes, facilities, programs, etc.)
- Managing and improving costly diagnoses
- Ex. There are many studies analyzing where people with obesity live in correlation to fast food restaurants versus recreation facilities such as parks
Below is a study from a health plan that analyzed patient access to care. It took into consideration membership volume, census population, inpatient utilization, emergency room utilization, volume of primary and specialty care physicians, and volume of acute care hospitals. Each metric was standardized by zip code to analyze access to care for each factor both individually and at the same time so that results could be compared. This information helps health plans appropriately prepare for the need of the specific region.
Although the capabilities demonstrate added value for a health plan, adoption challenges may include:
- Lack of Resources/Technical Capability – Health plans don’t possess the know-how to manage/maintain maps
- Lack of Knowledge – Although information is becoming more accessible, not all health plans are familiar with the capabilities or how it can seamlessly integrate with current business processes to produce valuable results
SDLC Partners has found GIS to be a valuable asset to health plans over time. Implementation of the system will decrease costs as it targets, analyzes, and works to improve the health of populations with high rates of medical diagnoses. The system also acts as a single resource (“one-stop shop”) for case managers to connect their members to resources, drastically reducing time and increasing efficiency. Additionally, the GIS system provides an advantage
for locating ideal locations or populations to market health care services and plans.
In conclusion, as awareness surrounding the GIS system’s capabilities continues to grow, especially in the healthcare industry, I would suspect the utilization will follow a similar trend line.
Kurland, Kristen & Wilpen L. Gore. GIS Tutorial
for Health, 3rd Edition. Esri Press. 2009.
Shaw, Nicole. “Geographical Information Systems and Health:
Current State and Future Directions”. Health Information Research. 30 June 2012.
Ritika Dogra is a Senior Consultant at SDLC Partners, a leading provider of business and technology solutions. Please feel free to contact Ritika at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions on this blog post or to further discuss GIS Technology in healthcare.