Resolution of the COVID-19 crisis has come down to how quickly governments can vaccinate individuals before more contagious variants of the virus evolve and spread. One platform playing a critical role in helping health care organizations win that race is a geographic information system (GIS) platform created by Health Solutions Research (HSR.health) and accessed as a cloud service.

The GeoHealth Platform HSR.health developed combines social determinants of health with social media data and estimated health care costs to surface potential hot spots. Created prior to the pandemic, the platform relies on a Health Risk Index model created using geospatial mapping software from Esri and open source Geoserver software for sharing geospatial data, HSR.health CEO Ajay Gupta told VentureBeat. “We wanted to track social determinants of health,” he said.

Shortly after the pandemic began, HSR.health extended that model using open data sources various agencies had made available to create a wider range of index models that can, for example, predict the location of future outbreaks and identify areas with the highest risk of death or critical illness by county, zip code, and census tracts.

As infection rates wax and wane, the index makes it possible to pinpoint specific areas where hospitalization rates are about to increase based on all the risk factors analyzed, Gupta noted. That information can also play a critical role in identifying regions and communities where people are for one reason or another hesitant to get vaccinated.

Thus far, the indices created by HSR.health have been employed by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in an effort to respond to COVID-19 throughout Central America. This push was enabled via the efforts of the Open Geospatial Consortium.

Pandemic proves GIS vigor

Separately, the Graph Foundation, which maintains a set of open application programming interfaces (APIs), has made risk maps and other insights available to the regional African office of the World Health Organization (WHO) using the transmission and mortality risk indices created by HSR.health.

In addition, state agencies in the U.S. used a Medical Device Index to provide visibility into the number of ventilators needed to provide care for currently hospitalized and anticipated COVID-19 patients, while manufacturers of personal protective equipment used a Medical Supply Index provided via consulting firm Portals Global to determine how to optimize supply chains.

Elsewhere, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other emergency response agencies have been employing the Health Risk Index to identify the health and medical needs of populations impacted by a specific disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has conclusively demonstrated that GIS platforms can play a crucial role in mitigating any health care crisis, Gupta said. For example, the city of Baltimore, Maryland is now in the early stages of a community trial for a maternal mortality risk stratification index that identifies social determinants of health for expectant mothers at risk for labor and delivery complications, as well as other child health issues.

Interest in community outreach in the health care community was just starting to gain momentum when the pandemic hit. Many health care providers were compensated based on patient outcomes, which necessitates having a better understanding of the root causes of diseases that might impact the community surrounding a health care facility. Now the immediate challenge is identifying communities that might be reluctant to participate in a COVID-19 vaccination program. Armed with that insight, health care advocates can better target their education efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from the only major health care crisis countries currently face. Once the pandemic subsides, there will be more time and energy to focus on widespread diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer. But location is a major indicator for many diseases, with COVID-19 only the latest and, arguably, most pressing.

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