Geographic information system (GIS)

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Geographic information system (GIS) is utilized to expand the vision of health information systems (HIS) to efficiently utilize the spatial content of health related data, GIS technology is becoming as a part of an ongoing reform of the health sector. The GIS support Health decision makers through examining spatial distribution of population, location of health services, and catchments areas of health facilities, etc. it would be possible for Health sector stake holders to undertake strategic decisions regarding the prioritization for upgrading of health facilities and objectively addressing health services plans.

Why use maps for health?

  1. We can use maps to record and store data and information:
  2. We can use maps to identify patterns based off of geographic locations
  3. Maps are an effective tool in order to present and communicate findings

History of GIS

In 1854, a British physician by the name of John Snow, became one of the first Epidemiologists documented in history. He used paper mapping of London, England, in order to identify the root cause of the cholera outbreak, which killed upwards of 550 people in the matter of two weeks. The popular theory of the epidemic at the time was the Miasma Theory, which essentially was the belief that the disease was spreading through air pollution. John Snow debunked this theory by using mapping of the cholera cases in the city, as well as mapping roads, property boundaries, and water lines. Based off of his spatial analysis, he was able to discover that the outbreaks seemed to be directly correlated with the water pumps, and thus was the ultimate culprit of the epidemic as they were contaminated. John Snow became known as the father of public health from his discoveries, and was one of the first cases of using a paper-based Geographic Information System.

The beginning of computer-based GIS technology began with a Canadian geographer by the name of Roger Tomlinson back in the early 1960s. Tomlinson initiated, planned, and developed the Canadian Geographic System – a system known for being the first functional Geographic Information System in the world. This system tackled about 1,500 maps for the use of land management and resource monitoring in Canada for agriculture, forestry, wildlife, and recreation uses.

GIS and Public Health

GIS is a widely used tool in public health in order to better understand relationships between diseases, geography, and demographics. The data obtained by GIS increasingly aids in assisting health professionals in formulating conclusions in a more timely and effective way. Surveillance, management, and analysis of diseases heavily rely on GIS, providing geographic-based data of environmental factors, social information, and other information related to a health concern. It is notably a means of identifying environmental exposures and their risks associated with them. Some diseases, i.e. mental health diseases, are researched under spatial analysis in order to better understand the social, cultural and location-based factors that may be linked to such epidemics. GIS data from mental health has revealed some more detailed information on healthcare, most significantly the effects of accessibility in healthcare. GIS communities recently developed applications which allow identification of population with inadequate access to health care, as well as the assessment of the performance of health facilities. Strategic distribution of healthcare practices has thus benefited from this system, to aid in decreasing disparities, and aide decision making in enforcing healthcare policy. Simply being aware of the disparities has helped providers better understand the health care system, and is used as a tool to assess and treat various health issues associated with geographic data.

GIS data plays a large role in the field of epidemiology, as we are better able to use such data as tool for surveillance, management, and analysis of the spread of diseases. Visually recording outbreaks on a map, like John Snow’s work, give scientists the first clues in identifying outbreaks, being able to see when, where, and how outbreaks have occurred. By further understanding of the source of outbreaks, health professionals are able to tackle epidemics and pandemics as quickly as possible to minimize morbidity and/or mortality results. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is just one organization that heavily relies on GIS data every day for their own surveillance, management, and analysis of disease.

Another discipline which comprehensibly uses GIS technologies is health emergencies agents; it used for ambulance fleet management, locating nearest ambulance point to an accident in addition to locating nearest hospital to it. Furthermore, using web-based GIS to view health related results over the internet would empower health authorities’ managerial capabilities with a readily available national vision of the health status that would be beneficial in both resource planning and emergency services.

Common aspects of GIS mapping within environmental health:

  1. Water resources
  2. Energy resources
  3. Pollution sources
  4. Land resources
  5. Biological resources

GIS initiatives in Public Health and Research

  1. AIDS Data Animation Project: Visual representation of data gathered between 1981-1992 on AIDS Mortality in the US
  2. GIS and the Health and Environment Linkages Initiative: How the World Health Organization uses GIS in assisting them in health and environmental decisions
  3. Syndromic Surveillance for Bioterrorism Following the Attack on the World Trade Center: Surveillance of possible bioterrorism specifically following the September 11th attack.
  4. Harvard Clean Air Research Center (CLARC): investigation of long term effects of air pollution on one’s health
  5. Use of GIS Mapping as a Public Health Tool—From Cholera to Cancer: Study on the capacities of GIS


A patient is now able to link their Personal Health Record information to a geographic location, allowing for their clinician to deliver another element of precision medicine - this emerging use of GIS technology is known as Geomedicine. Geomedicine uses information technology in order to identify the patient’s potential environmental contaminants exposures, and allows their clinician to have a better understanding of risk factors based off of where they live. This is important as studies have shown that various environmental exposures are directly linked to many diseases, including Asthma, Cancer, Birth Defects, infectious diseases, low birthweight, cardiovascular disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and preterm delivery. By evaluating the various locations that you have lived, a clinician may be able to use this information as an aide to their diagnoses, course of treatments, and preventative medicine strategies.

Related reviews


  1. GIS for Health Today and tomorrow
  2. Spatially enabling vital health data ,Paul Lemon
  3. Fradelos, E. C., Papathanasiou, I. V., Mitsi, D., Tsaras, K., Kleisiaris, C. F., & Kourkouta, L. (2014). Health Based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and their Applications. Acta Informatica Medica, 22(6), 402–405.
  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency (2017). Disease and Conditions. Retrieved from
  5. Doherty, P.(September 30, 2014). Geomedicine – Geography and Personal Health. Retrieved from
  6. Health and Environment Linkages Policy Series. (2017). Maps and spatial information technologies (Geographical Information Systems) in health and environment decision-making. Retrieved from
  7. (January 26, 2017). The Remarkable History of GIS. Retrieved from
  8. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. (2017). About John Snow. Retrieved from
  9. Tomslinson, R. (2012). Origins of the Canada Geographic Information System. Retrieved from

Submitted by Ghada Gad

Submitted by Nicole Bowman