Public health is another focus area that has made increasing use of GIS techniques. A strict definition of public health is difficult to pin down, as it is used in different ways by different groups. In general, public health differs from personal health in that it is (1) focused on the health of populations rather than of individuals,(2) focused more on prevention than on treatment, and (3) operates in a mainly governmental (rather than private) context. These efforts fall naturally within the domain of problems requiring use of spatial analysis as part of the solution, and GIS and other spatial analysis tools are therefore recognized as providing potentially transformational capabilities for public health efforts.
The tremendous potential of GIS to benefit the health care industry is just now beginning to be realized. Both public and private sectors are developing innovative ways to harness the data integration and spatial visualization power of GIS.
The types of companies and organizations adopting GIS span the health care spectrum--from public health departments and public health policy and research organizations to hospitals, medical centers, and health insurance organizations.
While health care professionals in the public health sector were early adopters of GIS and continue to find new and innovative uses for this technology, the use of GIS in the private health sector has grown substantially in the last decade. Private sector use now encompasses applications in marketing and business management as well as those concerned with patient care. These applications take into consideration the unique constraints under which the health care industry must operate.
Health care providers can no longer afford to indulge in the "build it and they will come" fallacy. Health care is a repeat business. Though many hospitals and medical centers have operated under Reilly's law of retail gravity--more square footage equals a larger trade area to draw from--they have begun to realize that to be competitive they need to be located conveniently to their customer base.
GIS supports environmental public health tracking (EPHT) by providing a platform to analyze environmental exposure data alongside health outcomes data. GIS running on a mobile device helps field data collectors perform health inspections by maintaining digital records and locations of field assets for legal code compliance and ticketing. GIS is a critical component for workforce development, including GIS expertise on rapid response teams as well as workers who can analyze the geographic distribution of services for gap analysis.
GIS visualizes health data over time to assist with making policy decisions, setting goals, and evaluating outcomes by linking health data with socio-demographic, environmental, administrative, and healthcare and services infrastructure. Web-based data query systems by making health data available to the public and researchers at their level of geography so they can better understand community issues.
Through robust data collection and management tools, GIS provides the ability to collect data in the field and integrate multiple datasets, improving organizational processes by creating more effective workflows, tracking progress, and communicating and sharing information. Health officials can monitor health status with a geographic framework to understand and assess multiple factors contributing to human health and disease, while also studying the utilization of community health resources.
GIS provides public health decision makers with a common operating picture to make rapid decisions, especially during public health emergencies such as infectious disease outbreaks or bioterrorist attacks. Public health officials use GIS to track performance, analyze multiple datasets on a variety of issues, and in the longer term better allocate resources to respond to needs.