Recently, it has been recognized that the public health sector needs to consider setting or context in order to successfully implement policies and procedures. Context variables encompass several factors such as politics, people, and the environment; these factors can be used to analyze current policies and programs.
An option to analyze setting or context is by examining the spatial components of public health with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS shows spatial relationships through a combination of cartography and statistical analyses. GIS displays this information in a sophisticated and visual manner.
In the field of health promotion and public health, (GIS) is applied in four fields: disease surveillance, risk analysis, health access and planning, and community health profiling. In this review the authors consider each field as a separate entity, but it should be noted that oftentimes these fields overlap.
First, disease surveillance employs data including occurrence, frequency, and spread of a disease. The field can be divided into two sections: disease mapping and disease modeling. Disease mapping analyzes the spread of the disease geographically over time. Disease modeling analyzes the information to discover high-risk areas, factors that contribute to the disease, identify control efforts, and predict future spread of the disease. GIS allows researchers to view all of these factors in a spatial manner, making it easier to identify patterns and analyze information.
Second, risk analysis usually investigates environmental risk factors that may contribute to disease (i.e. exposure to pollution or toxic waste). GIS connects housing locations to environmental factors in order to identify patterns of outbreaks and increase efficiency of control efforts.
Third, health access and planning implements GIS to analyze the spatial relationship between health services and the people who require them. GIS can be used to observe a network of health services, in order to determine how efficient these networks are.
Fourth, community health profiling combines general health information and other variables (i.e. demographics or physical activity) to observe patterns between people and the environment. GIS allows researchers to view these patterns as spatial relationships.
GIS can be implemented to enforce policy and administrative decisions in all of the above fields of the public health sector.