Spatial information can be a special resource leading to greater efficiency and substantial savings.
To teach the next generation of public health professionals how to use such technology, the Spatial Sciences Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Keck School of Medicine of USC launched the GeoHealth track this fall as part of the medical school’s online Master of Public Health degree.
This specialty is the first education collaboration of its kind. As a USC Dornsife track inside a Keck School online degree, GeoHealth also represents USC’s first multi-school online collaboration, which combines the best of what two existing degree programs has to offer.
“Public health practice is relying more and more on the spatial sciences to better understand how geographic and social characteristics affect well-being and how spatial analytics can be deployed to improve and streamline the delivery of health services,” said John Wilson, professor of sociology at USC Dornsife.
Wilson also holds appointments in civil and environmental engineering, and computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and architecture at the USC School of Architecture.
“Many types of health problems start with exposure to air pollutants, bacteria or a virus,” said Wilson, director of SSI. “Fundamentally, this exposure is always expressed in terms of space and time.”
For example, long-term and sustained exposure to traffic pollution may increase the risk of developing certain cancers.
“Location matters,” Wilson said, adding that when that is the case, geographic information systems (GIS) are a valuable aid.
Big questions with huge implications
GIS can help discover the root cause of disease — for example, by mapping areas of exposure to potentially cancer-causing toxins. It can also help provide effective health services more cheaply, he noted.
We’ll be able to ask really big questions that will have huge implications for the cost and quality of health care.
“As big data is increasingly applied to health, it will allow us to discover whether we have the appropriate health care facilities in the right locations and open at the right times,” Wilson explained. “For the first time, on multiple levels inside a hospital or system-wide, we’ll be able to ask really big questions that will have huge implications for the cost and quality of health care.”
Such questions might include evaluating the need for expensive and complicated technologies and services before committing to such an investment. Or something as simple as connecting individuals who have limited English-language capabilities with language-appropriate medical or dental services.”
Shaping health outcomes
By following the GeoHealth track, MPH students can develop the skills to use spatial analysis to explore how different geographical contexts can shape health outcomes, trends and inequalities. For instance, access to fresh fruit and vegetables, health care facilities, and clean air and water are likely to vary substantially across metropolitan regions and from one state, county or country to the next.
“The GeoHealth track will appeal to people who imagine a role for themselves in public health departments and who want to specialize in providing service and guidance to the public,” Wilson said.
The track can lead toward other careers such as research associate or analyst at a health care organization.
“Just about every federal, state and local health department already has a mapping interface,” Wilson said. “If they don’t, developing one will be near the top of their priority list. Somebody has to build, update and manage the data behind these Web maps, and that will create a considerable number of job opportunities in this field.
“We don’t have equal access to health facilities,” he added. “So mapping is a way of organizing, synthesizing and understanding what facilities are available and accessible. Then, the Web map provides a visual way of communicating this information to large numbers of people.”