ESRI's Chris LeSueur demonstrates a TouchTable to workshop guests. The Tabletop is an interactive, computerized map controlled by touch.
Workshop spreads knowledge of GIS
By Heather Reifsnyder
The annual Healthy People conference is a long-standing School of Public Health tradition. Now, there is a new tradition accompanying Healthy People. This marks the second year that a GIS (geographic information systems) workshop has been offered in conjunction with the Healthy People conference.
The two-day workshop convened March 4 and 5 with 20 people in attendance, mostly public health executives and senior managers who deal with public health emergency preparedness and response.
GIS technology has many valuable applications to the health care and public health fields, such as epidemiology and emergency preparedness and response. However, it is not used as widely as it could be due to several factors such as privacy issues with health-related data, perceived disconnection between informatics and public health practice, cost associated with implementing and maintaining GIS in health organizations, and an inadequate health workforce trained in GIS.
“I anticipate that there will be greater implementation of GIS applications and programs in public health practice as a result of the workshop,” says workshop organizer Seth Wiafe, MPH, academic director of health geographics programs in the School of Public Health.
Because the theme of Healthy People 2007 was pandemic disease prevention and preparedness, the workshop focused on the ways geotechnologies can boost public health emergency preparedness and response.
About half of the workshop’s participants were international guests from countries in Europe and Asia—for example, Tamie Sugawara, PhD, and Yasushi Ohkusa, PhD, from Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Both of these colleagues particularly enjoyed participating in the workshop’s three hands-on exercises. One of the exercises, for example, demonstrated using GIS technology to make evidence-based decisions about a large-scale vaccination campaign during a disease outbreak.
“I think GIS is very useful for demonstrating the results of a simulation of pandemic flu or smallpox,” Dr. Ohkusa says.
In Japan, GIS technology is not used in the health care industry, according to Dr. Sugawara. She believes policy makers need to learn about this useful tool.
“I would like to provide GIS information,” she says.
Two months ago in Japan, Dr. Sugawara studied GIS through Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which is a GIS and mapping software company that often works closely with Loma Linda University.
During the workshop, she and all the other guests were invited to Redlands to visit ESRI’s headquarters. The participants were treated to lunch, a campus tour, and a demonstration of ESRI’s GIS capabilities—including a system developed specifically for Loma Linda University Medical Center’s DISCOVERIES project to improve emergency care.
In addition to the tour, ESRI’s public health specialist, Chris Kinabrew, MPH, MSW, helped plan the workshop and gave two presentations. And ESRI also helped sponsor the workshop.
“Workshops like this build the GIS capacity within health agencies at the global and local levels,” says Mr. Kinabrew. “Staff of both ministries of health and local health departments gain GIS skills, learn about promising practices in health GIS applications, and build a network of health GIS professionals.”
Mr. Wiafe says he has received positive feedback about the two-day event. For example, an epidemiologist from the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency e-mailed him to say thank you for the workshop.
“I absolutely benefited, and will be spreading the word about much of what I learned among my colleagues here in San Diego,” wrote Alan M. Smith, PhD, MPH.
From the perspective of the School of Public Health, this kind of response illustrates that the goals of the workshop were accomplished.
“The GIS workshop is a prime example of our School’s workforce capacity building efforts,” say David Dyjack, DrPH, dean of the School of Public Health.
“In this case, we provided training in surveillance, ultimately leading to health agencies that are better equipped to predict and monitor emerging diseases such as West Nile virus and influenza.