Monthly Archives: October 2016

GIS as an Educational Tool at MUSC

Submitted by Jennifer Rewolinski

Dr. Deborah Williamson is an Associate Professor in the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Charleston. Dr. Williamson, Community Health Maps (CHM) and MUSC have partnered in providing training that integrates GIS and CHM tools for a high school Teen Health Leadership Program. Dr. Williamson has worked with both community members and students.

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Dr. Deborah Williamson (MUSC)

Dr. Williamson believes that, “GIS has the potential to substantially increase community engagement and is truly a concept of the neighborhood taking control of their data.” She notes that while researchers might study a community, that a community’s input is essential to understanding the cultural and environmental context surrounding health issues: “GIS mapping puts the community members on more of a level playing field with their research partners.” GIS can empower and educate community members to identify their key issues, to become a part of an analysis, and to provide solutions. When communities are given the opportunity to map their own health, discovery, and awareness, positive changes can result.  When a community feels it has more of a say through engagement with GIS, or communication with a map, intervention is more likely to be effective.

For the past three semesters, Dr. Williamson has used GIS in her own classroom as a capstone project for population health students.  They, “find it fun and can take it with them into other settings, it fits into the world of new technology, and it takes people to the next step of looking at health issues.” Mapping offers a different way to help students visualize Social Determinants of Health and to make the connection between what population health is, and the factors that promote or deter it.

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MUSC students presenting their capstone work at the APTR Conference in Albuquerque (April 2016)

Finally, Dr. Williamson sees GIS as bi-directional: it supports visualizing gaps and assets while also providing the ability to disseminate and build on information via intervention programs to improve health outcomes and strengthen communities. GIS is also broadly applicable to almost any discipline and easily used by those with little expertise. “Presenting raw data to a community or students doesn’t mean a lot,” Dr. Williamson comments, “but when that same data is aggregated visually it instantly communicates a message to any audience.” GIS is clearly suitable as an effective educational tool in the classroom and in communities.

CHM thanks Dr. Williamson for her continued collaboration and time spent advancing the CHM program through use of the CHM tools at MUSC. CHM values our partnership with MUSC and hope that the future is as mutually beneficial as the past few years.

Field data collection for the CHM workflow bridges the divide between learning in a classroom and experiencing conditions in a community. For the capstone project, students use CHM labs and parts of the CHM workflow, including phone data collection with iForm or Fulcrum, integration of the data into QGIS, and presenting the data with Carto or Google Maps. Dr. Williamson’s students often upload their data from iForm to Google Maps because of its familiarity and easy access.

One student project involved identifying migrant camps as a community in need, and assessing the community through surveys and key informant interviews.  When the data showed that migrant workers often lack knowledge of health information and access to healthcare services, students mapped locations of migrant camps near Charleston, SC in relation to urgent care facilities and shared the data with the migrant outreach workers from a local community health center. Later, an intervention was developed to provide hands on CPR and first aid instruction to 60 workers. This project displays successful application of CHM tools in an educational and community context resulting in an intervention that may offer real change.

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Map of MUSC Population Health student’s capstone project showing the locations of migrant camps and urgent care facilities in Charleston, SC.

Visualizing an Intervention for Tobacco Control

Submitted by Jennifer Rewolinski

Dr. Heckman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, used Community Health Maps (CHM) tools in his research on tobacco control. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide and costs the US $130 billion in direct medical costs annually. Smoking is still a major public health issue that influences mortality, morbidity, healthcare costs, the environment, and quality of life.

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Dr. Bryan Heckman

The outcome of Dr. Heckman’s precision medicine project will be a mobile app that aids smokers who recently quit by alerting them of proximity to stores which sell cigarettes or alternative nicotine products. Studies show that greater tobacco retailer density is associated with greater incidence of relapse; Dr. Heckman believes that mapping provides a new approach to visualizing environmental factors. A CHM training event at MUSC spurred his decision to integrate mapping into his own work using the CHM labs as a guide. These labs provide step-by-step instructions for implementing the CHM workflow. He used the data collection app Fulcrum on an iPhone to collect information on retailers: GPS coordinates, type, type of tobacco products sold, e-cigarette advertising, and photos. His team also used a high-powered Trimble GPS device to test accuracy of phone GPS, and the accuracy of phone GPS was adequate and more cost effective than more expensive GPS devices.

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Figure 1. Dr. Heckman’s in progress map shows higher numbers of tobacco retailers are associated with  Census Tracts that have both higher poverty and a higher percentage of minority populations.

Dr. Heckman integrated his Fulcrum data into QGIS software. He added national datasets from the American Community Survey and Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System for Census tract data, and Synar for retailer data to check the validity of the Fulcrum data; field data collection with Fulcrum revealed a more accurate list of current retailers than the national secondary datasets provided. Dr. Heckman believes QGIS is a powerful tool with many features; he was not only able to use QGIS to monitor and visualize his research questions but also to guide his project decisions and hypotheses. His results will guide policy recommendations, improve access to care, and deliver novel interventions.

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Figure 2. Dr. Heckman’s in progress map shows higher numbers of tobacco retailers are associated with Census Tracts with higher percentages of minority populations.

For those attempting to undertake a health GIS project on their own, Dr. Heckman emphasized that all the tools needed are provided on the CHM blog; only time and patience are required. He also recommends asking for help and reaching out to other CHM users who have experience. Dr. Heckman’s project has the potential to affect behavior change and reduce health disparities via a mobile intervention app which identifies nearby tobacco retailers and prompts and provides an intervention and awareness of a health issue. Dr. Heckman’s experience is an example of how the CHM blog and tools might be used.

Dr. Heckman would like to thank Kurt Menke and the CHM team, Dr. Williamson from MUSC, and his mentors for inspiration and growth. He would also like to acknowledge the Hollings Cancer Center and American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant that helps support his work, and Alex Hirsch for his help coordinating the project.

The CHM team would like to extend their own gratitude to Dr. Heckman as they sincerely appreciate his time and his support of the CHM blog.