Australia's health students learn their place

May 10, 2012

Where we live and work is as vital in healthcare as genetics, diet and lifestyle, one of Australia's leading geo-health specialists has told the next generation of health professionals.

Sydney’s renowned Macquarie University invited Esri Australia geographic health expert Jeremy Pytel to address its health studies students yesterday on the importance of geography in establishing a complete understanding of the social and environmental determinants of health. 

Mr Pytel commended the university on joining a push from some of Australia’s most respected health organisations – including the Royal College of Surgeons and several government health departments – in acknowledging the life-saving role that Geographic Information System (GIS) technology can play in healthcare and medicine.

“Overall, Australia’s healthcare system is lagging behind the world’s leading hospitals and medical institutions, which are now using GIS technology widely,” Mr Pytel said.

“It’s very encouraging to see our nation’s universities acknowledge how pivotal geographic insight can be in health – and insist their students begin to learn about the field of ‘geomedicine’.”

Mr Pytel urged the third year undergraduates to never underestimate the importance of ‘place’ in healthcare.

“Health professionals have traditionally relied heavily on patient information gathered through direct observation and diagnostic testing, parental health histories, and prior treatments,” Mr Pytel said.

“However, this information has limited use unless it is combined with an understanding of the environmental hazards a patient has been exposed to throughout their lives.

“For example, we know that living or working within certain proximity of highways can significantly increase the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

“GIS technology helps health professionals discover these links by enabling them to cross-reference many different data sources and use geography to reveal underlying relationships between them.”  

Mr Pytel said GIS technology had applications at all levels of healthcare – from service provision to policy-making and research.

“In facilitating the interactive mapping and layering of health and organisational data, GIS technology highlights issues such as services gaps, program eligibility and resource allocation levels,” Mr Pytel said.

“It delivers a new level of insight and accuracy that helps direct public health policy, and is an effective tool for case management and community assessment.”

Macquarie University Health Studies academic Jette Bollerup said it was important for students to learn that GIS technology had important and wide-ranging applications when it came to analysing and communicating health issues.

“Macquarie University's Health Studies program has an emphasis on understanding health in relation to its social and environmental determinants,” Ms Bollerup said.

“We believe it’s important to provide students a thorough understanding of the 'causes of causes' relating to ill or good health. 

“Students are encouraged to look toward implementing health promoting policies in all public policies, not only those directly linked to health.

“This requires good analytical skills and the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences, and GIS technology is an important tool that students need to become familiar with.”