How can health care companies expand their use of GIS?

GM_100x100Health care companies today use geographic information systems (GIS) to assess the needs, access and utilization of their populations and networks. Whether comparing health outcomes or targeting sales of a specific product, GIS can display multidimensional concepts and visualize geographic variations in order to influence health care decisions.

When considering the health care needs of a community, location-based analysis links population and environmental information to demonstrate disease burden and evaluate the extent of the need. Why do adjacent cities have disparate levels of asthma? Is the prevalence of hypertension increasing and how can providers prepare to meet the emerging need? Is obesity prevalence in a ZIP code more influenced by the lack of healthy foods or the abundance of fast food restaurants? Location-based root cause analysis better informs policy analysts and decision-makers in designing targeted health interventions.

Access — or rather, perceived access — to health services strongly impacts health outcomes and health-seeking behavior. Are certain communities lacking mental health providers? Does low health care literacy exacerbate the underinsured rate and thus proper health care seeking behavior? Provider systems and health plans use GIS to plot health care services and providers in relation to patient/member locations and needs. A more nuanced understanding of their population’s access allows health care companies to improve physical access and educate their members and patients about how to properly seek health care services.

Finally, health care companies use GIS to visualize trends in their population’s utilization. Does perceived lack of access encourage people to bypass the urgent care clinic and go to the ER in non-emergency situations? Do comparable primary care providers in a certain county experience different levels of demand and capacity for no apparent reason? Health care actors use GIS to analyze the adequacy of their network, and make efforts to close gaps in care where needed most. GIS can also provide the information needed to redirect members from over-capacity clinics to those with opening, improving their access to care.

Although health-oriented organizations already use GIS in a number of impactful ways, some capabilities are underutilized. For example, mapping is used mostly at a population health view — meaning that data is aggregated from a group of individuals to show the needs and access issues of a population in order to design large-scale interventions. But, how can it be used in one-on-one interactions between, say, a case manager and her client? Through population health analysis we are able to attribute the rise in obesity to lack of healthy food, yet can we use GIS to pinpoint and refer members to accessible community-based organization that address their most basic needs such as food and shelter?

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. Can health care companies be more intentional about setting up providers in high-need areas and deploying field resources in hard to reach places?

In the next post, I will focus on how HealthState, the Optum GIS solution, is moving past the standard health care GIS model to better the lives of the people we serve — on the population level and individual level.

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

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