We asked Eric Delmelle, associate professor in the University of North Carolina, what are the advantages and challenges in using spatial data in health research. Eric was the key note speaker in Geospatial data in health and welfare research -seminar IMPRO organized in October 2018.
What additional value can spatial information bring to health service research?
“You can link spatial data for example with electronic records and that will provide information on where patients come from and where they seek care. This will eventually improve the quality of the system.
With this data we are able analyze for instance regional disparities in travel distance. In some regions patients have to travel very long distances to services. This is very useful information to decision making, for example if you need to locate new resources or where to reuse existing resources. There is lot of opportunities in using spatial data and the quality of the analysis will also improve.”
What are the key challenges in using spatial data in health research?
“I think the main challenges, in my own research as well, concern privacy. When we are making maps, for instance, we are really trying to maintain a certain level of privacy but at the same time we want to map the pattern.
Around the theme of uncertainty there are issues of geocoding, the address of the patient. Then there are important issues such as did the patient use the closest facility as it is assumed in many studies or did the patient actually end up using another one for specific reason.
Then there are also issues of aggregation. Sometimes we don´t map the location of the patient but we map rates, aggregated data and that can show a lot of instability.”