GIS: The next big thing in health care data visualization

GM_100x100Most health care organizations strive to embrace “big data” as more than just a buzz word, yet many find it difficult to transform their data into actionable information. Complex queries produce tables and graphs that are the first brush strokes of a picture, and dashboards provide some animation as they update users on changes and trends. However, many are unaware of the existence or applications of a tool that fills in the color and brings these images to life: GIS.

A geographic information system, or GIS, is a system designed to capture and manage geographical data in order to visualize and analyze relationships, patterns and trends. The output often manifests itself as a map.

Using GIS in health care is not novel — more than 120 years ago, John Snow used mapping to pinpoint the source of the cholera outbreak in London. Today, many public health organizations create heat maps to illustrate the prevalence of certain diseases by geography. GIS enables health care organizations to target and prioritize certain regions and communities for interventions and explore correlations between disease and the social determinants of health. However, the full capability of GIS is not often realized within health care companies.

Product-oriented companies use GIS to choose their next store location, to monitor factors that might influence their sales, and even to set up physical and digital security operations. It’s time for health care to look beyond the heat map and to use GIS to bring our data to life. In doing so, we will improve the experiences and lives of the people our companies touch.

In this series, I will discuss how GIS is used in health care today, how health care companies can expand their uses of GIS, and the Optum GIS answer to some of health care’s most pressing questions.

–Glafira Marcon, HealthState Analyst, Optum Technology Innovation R&D

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