GIS a Mission-Critical Tech for Public Health

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“GIS is mission critical for public health,” says Carl Kinkade, geospatial information system specialist at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, a federal health research agency. CDC offers a number of GIS-driven health maps, many of which pull data from state health departments, he says. “Reportable diseases include flu, TB, STDs and HIV,” he says. “All the states are required to track them and we have an overarching national reporting system of national surveillance. GIS is spread across CDC centers and divisions.”

The CDC primarily relies on ESRI software, but has incorporated GIS software from other sources as well, including Google and QGIS, a free, open source application ( formerly known as Quantum GIS.

Kinkade’s role routinely takes him oversees to such far-flung locales as China, Botswana and Viet Nam, where the CDC assists with setting up public health programs embedded with such technologies. “The health ministries want to understand the environmental and social factors contributing to a problem,” he says. “They want to know how to craft an intervention.”

CDC is often called in after the outbreak of a contagious disease, for example. “In public health work, we often go out and interview people after an outbreak,” he says. “When we gather data, we want to include GPS coordinates, video and sound files. We can bring all that together in GIS and look for patterns and run the data through a statistical analysis.” The CDC’s work often takes it outside the boundaries of typical clinical data embedded in an EHR. One effort in Guatemala was aimed at boosting emergency preparedness response capability. The agency mapped potential sinkholes, weather patterns and erosion that might lead to landslides or other natural catastrophes, Kinkade says. “The local health department leadership expects a map.”

Although GIS is commonly deployed in state health departments in the U.S., Kinkade believes the health industry here underestimates the technology’s value in generating data-embedded and easily-manipulated health maps. “In the United States, we’re infants when it comes to using GIS in health care,” he says. “Defense, intelligence and the police do more sophisticated work. In health care, the work is done in isolated projects. One person might be doing GIS, but another is just drawing dots on a map. There is a reluctance to make a big investment in the technology.”

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