A Space for Health

USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute and Keck School of Medicine of USC launch GeoHealth as part of the online Master of Public of Health degree.
BySusan Bell

Seeking to reduce costs and increase efficiency, an East Coast hospital recently mapped the workflow of its radiology department.

The process recorded the movement of staff between stations and the time it took them to accomplish their duties as they took X-rays, developed films and distributed them to doctors.

After studying the spatial information recorded on the resulting map, the hospital reorganized the layout of the department, so that stations were situated more efficiently. The new layout enabled its radiology team to provide the same services faster and at about 70 percent of the prior cost.

Dating back as early as the 1850s, maps have helped to create the foundation of public health. Today, as mapping and related technologies have become more sophisticated, the spatial sciences have become even more vital to research and decision making.

The spatial sciences use geospatial technologies to map, model, analyze, and understand a wide range of geographical and social factors. These include the locations of people and their everyday activities such as the delivery of health and human services. The technology also maps the location and frequency of natural disasters and dynamic Earth processes such as erosion and plate tectonics.

To teach the next generation of public health professionals how to use spatial technologies, the Spatial Science Institute (SSI) at USC Dornsife and the USC Keck School of Medicine launched the GeoHealth track this Fall as part of USC Keck’s online Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. 

This specialty is the first education collaboration of its kind. As a USC Dornsife track inside a USC Keck 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 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.

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.

“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. 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 healthcare.”

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.

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, healthcare 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 healthcare 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 said. “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.”

The program is built upon five foundation courses in public health, an elective and a practicum. These core courses focus on concepts such as health education and promotion, health services delivery in the United States, biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, and occupational health. In addition to the foundation courses, students will complete four concentration courses through SSI.

“By building and sustaining a GeoHealth track within USC Keck’s Master of Public Health degree, students will get the best USC has to offer in fundamental public health training and the spatial sciences,” Wilson said.

For more information about USC’s online Master of Public Health with a specialization in GeoHealth, visit mphdegree.usc.edu.