A respected health care professional once said “geography is destiny in medicine”. If that is true, shouldn’t location and geospatial analytics be part of your population health strategy?

A number of data management and data analytic tools are being developed for providers and payers. They help organizations understand, act on, and track improvement in the overall health of populations. However, most of these systems are missing a key health factor…location.

The use of location to analyze population health is a proven method. In fact, it goes back to 1854 when John Snow used paper maps and statistics to determine the source of a cholera outbreak. Today, simple map-based visualizations make it obvious to the even the casual observer that location and health go together. Just look at the CDC map of heart disease and stroke deaths and there is no denying that these two health issues are a big problem in the southeast. Or, look at the geographic clustering of low birth-weights in Shreveport, LA or the diabetic populations in the Los Angeles area to see additional examples of geography-health correlations.

At the moment, the analysis of location-based health data is generally overlooked in healthcare. Most population health systems don’t fully exploit the value of geospatial visualization and analytics. Not because location is seen as un-important, but because it is difficult to manage, visualize, and analyze location-based data with the technologies commonly used in the healthcare space today. As a result, geospatial visualization and analysis often gets ignored.

The integration of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into Population Health Management tools can change all of this. GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and visualize data by its geographical component. It is the technology best suited for geospatial visualization and analytics.

GIS is a proven technology that has been around since the late 60’s. It is widely adopted within federal, state, and local government organizations, and it is gaining rapid adoption in private sector industries. Understanding and influencing what-is-going-on-where is critical to industries like oil and gas, retail, insurance, logistics, transportation, utilities and others. Healthcare is no different.

How can GIS be used in healthcare to improve the effectiveness of your population health strategy? Here are some opportunity areas:

Visualization – Start looking at data with a location component (address, zip code, city, etc) on a map as opposed to a spreadsheet or chart or graph. Become spatially aware by utilizing the universal language of a map and help all stakeholders gain new insight.

Integration of data - GIS is the tie that binds. It is an excellent technology for integrating disparate data sources. GIS makes it simple to incorporate demographic and other 3rd party data to better understand your patient populations.

Identify patients to add to existing ACO networks – Once your ACO provider network is built, use geospatial analytics to identify opportunities to add patients based on locations and risk profiles.

Patient engagement – Do you know where your high-risk patients live? Understanding clustering patterns will help you to better engage patients with chronic diseases. Utilizing integrated 3rd party data sources such as public transportation access, demographic data, access to healthy food, and others will help you understand and mitigate health risks, and ultimately keep your ACO patients out of the emergency room.

Monitor actual care delivered against clinical guidelines - View how treatments vary by each Diagnosis-Related Group (DRG) and location. Quickly identify problem areas and take action to shore up your ACO delivery capabilities or processes. The Dartmouth Health Atlas provides is a good example of how treatment disparities are readily identified on a map.

Demonstrate improvement – View changes in emergency department and inpatient utilization, or other metrics over time on a map. This helps you understand where you are having the most impact and where you aren’t. Understanding the “where” gets you to the “why” much faster.

Maximize the value of your EMR data – The sensitivity of the data often prevents it from being fully leveraged. A GIS allows you to aggregate the data based on geographic areas (by zip code, census tracts, census blocks, etc). Aggregation can provide enough granularity to understand trends, yet it keeps individual patient information anonymous. This permits wider dissemination of the data and increases the effectiveness of stakeholders in the population health management process.

Getting started and achieving quick wins is not as difficult as you may think. Simple visualizations can be done quickly and securely and they often result in big payoffs. As you prove out the value of a GIS, you will naturally want to take additional actions to make your organization more spatially mature. Integration of mapping capabilities into to existing population health management systems and the development of more complex geospatial analytics will become the natural next steps.

In the end, location and health are closely intertwined. GIS is the right tool for the job. Let’s start using it to make healthcare better.