Mapping the 'new normal'

Technique | Louisiana bureau uses its GIS tool to chart and improve medical coverage

When a GIS is not a GIS

Greg Donahue calls MapInfo Professional a 'location intelligence tool,' not a geographic information system.

'We realized that GIS is a specialty,' said Donahue, a senior marketing manager at MapInfo. 'Traditional GIS software has a high learning curve. It's something that somebody has to be trained in.'

At the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, many of the MapInfo users are doctors ' experts in medicine, but not in mapping data, Donahue said.

They like MapInfo Professional because it's easy to use and can access data in many different formats, such as Microsoft Excel. 'It needs to be a tool in their toolbox,' he said.

MapInfo Professional can also open data from ESRI, the popular GIS software, Donahue said, adding that it runs on Microsoft Windows and looks a lot like Word.
The Troy, N.Y., company has focused on making its products easy to learn and use for eight or 10 years, Donahue said.

A two-day class in MapInfo can turn a novice into an expert; after users understand the basic concepts and how to plot layers, they're ready to go, Donahue said. 'But there is a little bit of an art in understanding how your map should look.'

New Territory: Michael Dailey says he found a lot of new uses for MapInfo after Hurricane Katrina.

WPN Photo by Lee Celano

In 2003, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals' Bureau of Primary Care and Rural Health invested in a geographic information system, but it was a bit of a novelty. They used the stand-alone Pitney Bowes MapInfo GIS tool for market analysis, reviewing street-level data to decide where to locate clinics.

'It was all fine and well,' said Michael Dailey, program manager of the bureau's health information systems. 'We were comfortable in the way we used it. But it was basically a tool to make pretty pictures.'

Then came the summer of 2005. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state.
'Our jobs and what was requested of us changed quite a bit,' Dailey said. The Health and Human Services Department wanted to know the hot spots in the state ' the places where the population was underserved in terms of medical care.

'Actually, at that time, the whole state would be considered underserved,' Dailey said.

The state needed a lot of complex information. HHS had questions about demographics, population shifts and migration.

' Michael Dailey, Louisiana Bureau of Primary Care and Rural Health
'The quickest way to communicate all that became the MapInfo tools,' Dailey said. His job became more about communication than analysis, and he used the GIS tool to show a broader audience the areas that had the greatest need for more doctors and nurses.

'It was a little bit like inventory control,' Dailey said. 'Only in this case, the health care providers were the inventory.'

Dailey added GIS analyst and demographer to his position description. 'We leaned on what we had, which was MapInfo,' he said.

Dailey and the bureau plotted disease rates and 20 to 30 other types of data. 'The tool allowed a non-GIS person to perform data collection and analysis and identify hot spots much faster,' he said.

The state's redesigned health care system in the wake of Katrina follows what Dailey called the medical home model. The bureau's services are coordinated around a primary health care provider who establishes the appropriate levels of care for each patient.

The MapInfo tools have been surprisingly easy to use, Dailey said. 'To be honest, as much as I love playing with databases and spreadsheets, it's a lot quicker for me to throw data tables into MapInfo,' he said. 'When we start adding 20 or 30 levels of data, all those layers of complexity, MapInfo provided a quick, easy tool to help us make decisions and match needs with services and capacities. As a neophyte, I've learned there's a lot more power in this tool that we'd like to get into.'

As Louisiana settles 'down into the new normal,' Dailey said, the state's Department of Health and Hospitals has grown accustomed to receiving mapping
information.

The bureau is sharing the GIS tool with other state agencies, including the Office for Addictive Disorders. 'They also needed to communicate with providers what capacities are available, and where and when,' Dailey said. 'It's been interesting to see folks coming to us for GIS work. I'm more than happy to help.'
He is also talking with a GIS group at Louisiana State University about sharing data.

Dailey wants to learn more about the higher analytical capabilities of the MapInfo GIS suite. 'Now we're just using MapInfo Professional and MapMarker,' he said. 'But as soon as I saw some of the Java development tools available, I thought, 'Wow, that's what I want to do. That will go a long way.''
He also wants to put GIS information online.

The bureau is using MapInfo to pull data from multiple databases for a program that tracks asthma rates. Sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the project will gather information about ozone, particulate matter, and wind speed and direction, and correlate it to asthma admissions to emergency rooms and patient ZIP codes. 'Without MapInfo, it would be very difficult to communicate this information to a nongeek audience,' Dailey said.

What started as a sometime tool has become an integral part of everyday work at the bureau, Dailey said. 'Everyone has found their own niche for using it,' he said. 'Every time I use it I find something new.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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