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What GIS Mapping Technology Can Tell You About the Health of Your Neighborhood and Your Risk for Illness

The emerging field of geo-medicine is helping to map food deserts, parks and illness rates, connecting the dots between place and health.

Photo Credit: Edwin Verin/Shutterstock.com


San Bernardino, a city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles' exurban sprawl, is a veritable "food desert." For every grocery store or otherwise "healthy" food outlet, the city has eight fast-food joints, convenience stores and other junk food purveyors -- along with rampant heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes rates and a life expectancy eight years shorter than the average Californian.

With such looming health issues and relatively few parks and recreational spaces, San Bernardino places near the bottom in state quality of life rankings. But, in one respect, the city is ahead of others grappling with epidemic lifestyle-related illnesses: It's aiming GIS or "geographic information systems" at the problem.

While the rest of the world is using the technology to map everything from real estate transactions to bike-sharing stations, San Bernardino is charting illness and cross-referencing it against the locations of food deserts and crime hotspots, as well as parks and bike paths.

"It's one thing to know what a food desert is. But to see it on the map is totally different," says Cynthia Luna, who leads San Bernardino's Latino Health Collaborative, one of several advocacy groups and public agencies that have come together to improve the health of the city's 200,000 residents.

"Having the data actually sustains us and helps shape our advocacy," says Luna, of the project supported by the city's mayor, Patrick J. Morris, a 73-year-old running enthusiast, as well as healthcare organizations and a private foundation that chipped in to pay for a 100-plus page "environmental scan" last year that has brought the city's health challenges into sharper focus.

Marrying Place and Health

What's happening in San Bernardino is part of the burgeoning new field of "geo-medicine," which emphasizes the many ways that place impacts health. The technology is not new (even before it was discovered by the likes of the real estate site, Zillow, the fossil fuel industry has long used GIS mapping to explore for the next big oil field). But the tools have matured in recent years. As they've gotten better at turning knowledge stored away in databases into more user-friendly soundbites and infographics, physicians and public health officials have begun to embrace them.

The trend is also ushering in a new era of "citizen epidemiologists," says Bill Davenhall, a healthcare manager with the geographic information systems software developer Esri. And around the country, experiments are underway to, among other things, pair geo-mapping with patient medical records to help doctors personalize treatment.

At Loma Linda Medical Center, which serves San Bernardino and three other counties, Esri is installing geo-coding software that automatically verifies patient addresses. Dora Barilla, the center's director of community health development, says once the project is operational, she envisions computer dashboards that would allow doctors and other care providers to "see" where a patient lives and what kind of neighborhood stores and social services they could tap upon discharge from the hospital. For instance, locating pharmacies or farmers markets within walking distance, or helping elderly patients enroll in public transit services to get them to their next doctor's appointment.

The trend is also allowing people to "quantify the self" as never before. One new company, Asthmapolis, has attached a GPS sensor atop asthma inhalers to allow patients and their doctors to track and map attacks and gain new insights into what triggers them. Once the data is "de-identified" to protect patient privacy, it'll be sent to researchers investigating the causes of the condition.

"People are realizing the limitations of the silo mentality and the value of integrating information," says Davenhall, whose company offers a free iPhone app that uses GIS mapping to cross-reference everyplace you've ever lived to the pollution problems and associated illness and death rates in those places. Davenhall sees geo-medicine as part of a shift toward a more holistic approach to healthcare.

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