Geography and technology matter to health and medicine
Health and medical geographers investigate everything from healthcare delivery systems to epidemiology (the study of the spread of diseases within and among populations, and how to control this) to the effect of the environment on health. Health geographers are trained health or medical professionals. To assist with their work, these geographers use geographic information systems (GIS) and other geospatial technology including global positioning systems (GPS) and remote sensing (RS).
For example, health geographers may use GIS to create computerized maps that can display and analyze geographic information such as population growth, disease patterns, environmental and natural hazards, locations of health services, and countless other variables. In the process, they investigate the relationship of various factors to public health issues -- such as combating HIV/AIDS, determining local service needs, or dealing with health hazards in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster. Armed with geographic information, health geographers make decisions and advise local, national, and international leaders on how best to tackle health issues spanning communities and the globe.
Health geographers often work as an integral part of a research or response team, applying their skills in collaboration with doctors, nurses, scientists, public safety officers, and other governmental officials. While many work in an office or lab, many are also active in the field for some of their work, making periodic travel a necessity. In some instances, such as when studying the spread of a disease like HIV/AIDS, a health geographer's field experience may be lengthy. In international as well as domestic field assignments, health geographers will experience unfamiliar places, landscapes, climates, cultures, and languages. Some create new geographic data sets that they use in writing research articles or reports, or that others will utilize in doing their own research and analysis. Health geographers employed by colleges and universities may undertake a number of tasks, dividing their time among research, consulting, administrative, and teaching responsibilities. Those involved with teaching are generally in departments of public health or similar areas. Their role is helping train new health and medical practitioners in GIS and other geotechnologies.
Geography and technology matter to health and medicine
When you think of health and medical careers, you don't necessarily immediately think of geography. However, if you stop to consider discussions about medical issues and health threats in the news, geography comes into play constantly. Here are some of the things you may see, hear, and read.
"... and concern of the spread of avian influenza or the 'bird flu' continues. To help stop it, countries around the world are tracking and placing import bans on birds and bird products from affected parts of the world."
"... luckily, the hazardous concentrations of the toxic chemical were found to be seeping from a single source. Its reach was halted before the liquid traveled far, which could have contaminated public water supplies downstream."
"... the hospital's study identified a relationship between post-operative infections and sanitation practices in a particular ward. The microgeographic analysis resulted in changes in housekeeping procedures and infections have fallen in response."
"... with the large aging Baby Boom generation soon to join the ranks of the retired, emerging retirement destinations have begun taking a serious look at the need for and planned placement of new eldercare housing and health facilities."
"... in the aftermath of the hurricane, the local health department has mapped out the location of abandoned homes with swimming pools that were inundated and now hold standing water that is acting as breeding ground for mosquitoes."
"... the city's mock bio-terrorism planning event helped pinpoint possible target sites, the probable atmospheric dispersion pattern, the neighborhoods that would be most vulnerable and how best to evacuate, and where to position emergency medical and stations."
With these types of news clips in mind, you can begin to see that personal, community, national, and global health can be directly and indirectly related to and affected by geography. People who bring a geographic perspective to help protect our health, plan against and respond to disasters, and solve medical mysteries are increasing in numbers and importance to society.
Places to see GIS in action in health careers include:
*Some information provided by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Geographic and GIS skills
The educational attainment of health geographers and similar social and medical scientists is among the highest of all occupations. The Ph.D. or an equivalent degree is not uncommon and generally is required for some positions in colleges and universities. Such degrees also are important for advancement to many top-level nonacademic research and administrative posts. Graduates with master's degrees in applied specialties such as health geography and public health usually have better opportunities outside of colleges and universities, although the situation varies by specialty. Bachelor's degree holders in public health have fewer opportunities than advanced degrees, however, persons with high-level GIS and related geospatial skills are sought after at all degree levels. In combination, this area of study is also called health geoinformatics.
Training in statistics, mathematics, and database skills is essential for many health geographers. Mathematical and quantitative research methods increasingly are being used in geography, political science, and other fields. The ability to utilize computers and various software applications for research purposes is essential, including familiarity with GIS technology. Obviously, courses in geography and cartography are important as is having and applying a geographic perspective.
Many health geography students find that internships or field experience are beneficial. Numerous organizations offer public health internships or volunteer research opportunities. Depending on their jobs, health geographers may need a wide range of personal characteristics. Intellectual curiosity and creativity are fundamental personal traits, because health geographers constantly seek new information about people, things, and ideas. The ability to think logically and methodically is also important. Objectivity, having an open mind, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research. Excellent written and oral communication skills are also necessary.
Explore the Loma Linda University Geoinformatics Unit of the School of Public Health to learn about university certificates, bachelor and master degree programs, and courses of study.
Learn more about public health and educational programs at the Association of Schools of Public Health.
Geographic and GIS skills
Being geographically literate means much more than just knowing a range of geographic facts. Key geographic skills include being able to answer the questions where, why, how, who, and what. Whether a health or medical geographer is in a research lab or in the field, the questions are the same. Where did the epidemic begin? Where do we place medical stations, staff, and supplies? Why is it advancing here but not there? How is it spreading? What population factors might be involved? Who is at risk? What is our overall containment plan? And, inside each question are others focusing on patterns, relationships, and interactions.
Learn more about geography and geographic career opportunities at the career page of the Association of American Geographers.
Geographic visualization and analysis skills are more important to various public safety officials than ever before. With various natural and human-made challenges facing us, key public safety staff need strong technical skills including information technology areas of database applications, modeling, geospatial technologies--Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, Remote Sensing (RS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS)-- and other tools. To see more clearly how these skills fit into public safety activities, investigate the Esri Health and Human Services website.
Investigate a range of GIS and geospatial career and skill requirements at GIS.comÂ’s Career page.
Geographers overall earned a median salary of $76,860 in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which also describes the future of this occupation as bright for the next decade.
The Find a GIS Job area of GIS.com provides links to top GIS career sites to explore. Many job listings provide earnings information too.