Managing health risks of environmental origin requires simple and rapid access to high quality environmental and spatial statistics. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and associated information management systems such as On-line Analytic Processing (OLAP) can assist public health organizations with monitoring environmental health risks. With this goal in mind, this paper evaluates the potential of GIS and OLAP in the discipline of public and environmental health using a systematic literature review and a user needs assessment of 30 public health professionals in Canada.
The primary objective of the review is to identify, broadly and exhaustively, publications relating to the use of GIS, On-line Analytic Processing (OLAP), and World-Wide-Web (WWW) technologies. The review will be used to inform public health organizations about leading edge GIS and OLAP applications and to provide context and ideas for the design of new studies using GIS technologies within health. The user needs assessment is designed to assist public health professionals with identifying emerging trends that may not yet be evident in the literature and to cross-validate the findings of the literature review with practical examples/concerns from the field.
The results of the literature review reveal the integration of GIS and health. The initial application of this technology was simply cartographic visualization of health. However, the evolution of current research has shifted to decision-making applications utilizing GIS, OLAP, and WWW technologies. Furthermore, the limitations and possibilities of these technologies to improve the management, visualization, and analysis of geomedical data are discussed. The literature acknowledges the multidimensional and temporal limitations of traditional GIS. In addition, certain functions of GIS require complex manipulations and programming. As a result of the complexity and limitations of GIS, it is difficult for the most GIS professionals to manage and analyze environmental health data. Acknowledgement of these limitations and complexities is a key issue to this paper. The results of the needs assessment demonstrates the concerns of data availability/reliability and the generally low level of functionality used in most GIS applications. Perhaps the most interesting finding was the high level of interest among the operational public health professionals for furthering the use of GIS (96%), but a much lower recognition of the need for OLAP (26%).