Geography finds its place at the forefront of healthcare

Sep 22, 2011

The history of where you have lived and worked is as vital in healthcare diagnoses as your genetics and lifestyle, according to a leading American geomedicine specialist.

Speaking at the Healthcare Information and Management System Society AsiaPac11 conference in Melbourne today, Esri Global Hospital and Health Specialist Ann Bossard warned of the risks of ignoring ‘place’ in medicine.

“Medical practitioners have traditionally relied heavily on patient information gathered through direct observation and diagnostic testing, parental health histories, and prior treatments,” Ms Bossard 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 a certain proximity of highways can significantly increase the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”

Ms Bossard cited a World Health Organisation study which reported that up to 30 per cent of morbidity and mortality was a direct result of living or working in and around unhealthy physical and social environments.

“This has been identified as a serious global issue which needs to be addressed,” Ms Bossard said.

“Adding a geographical context, using cutting-edge Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, will not only accelerate diagnosis but increase the likelihood that physicians will make treatment recommendations that patients can comply successfully.

“Ultimately, a rich and accurate history of where a patient has lived and worked is integral to responsible healthcare.”

The field of ‘geomedicine’, which examines the link between environmental factors and the geographical distribution of health issues, is not new.

However recent advances in GIS technology driven by Esri in the US, and here in Australia by affiliate Esri Australia, have pushed the envelope of geomedical applications.

In the US, an online mapping website developed using Esri GIS technology enables users to search residential and work locations and find which health issues are related to those areas, as well as possible causes.

Esri Australia’s Victorian GIS in Health specialist Jeremy Pytel said Australia’s healthcare system is well behind the US when it comes to leveraging GIS technology.

“According to ABS statistics 68 per cent of Australians live in cities – where there is compromised air quality and exposure to pollutants,” said Mr Pytel.

“Research proves these contaminations are precursors to circulatory and respiratory disease.

“Australia’s urban sprawl has also seen areas once dominated by industry and agriculture transformed into housing estates, parks and schools.

“For example, many towns and cities in Victoria have been built in areas with a history of gold mining. In some instances, mine tailings that contain arsenic are spread over large areas of land, including land now used for housing.

“Long term exposure to arsenic has been linked to liver, kidney and nerve damage as well as a variety of cancers – the value of GIS lies in its ability to translate this rich environmental health data into a meaningful patient profile.

“A health system underpinned with GIS will see patients benefit from a more precise clinical understanding of the links between their health and where they live, work, and play.”