Putting Public Health on the Map

Alumna Kirsten Beyer integrates geography, public health, and community engagement to address health concerns.

There is a long history recognizing the close links between health and geography. Just look back to 19th-century London physician John Snow, who, as the story goes, investigated a cholera epidemic by mapping residents’ deaths and tracing the disease source to a community water pump. Pump handle removed, epidemic halted.

Portrait of Kirsten Beyer

University of Iowa College of Public Health alumna Kirsten Beyer integrates geography, public health, and community engagement to address health concerns.

Somewhere over the years, however, the emphasis on place and space in public health seemed to fade, says alumna Kirsten Beyer, who came to this conclusion while earning her Master of Public Health degree. An elective course, “The Geography of Health,” struck her in particular.

“I thought it was fascinating,” she says. “I wondered why geographical information was not more prominent in public health. Why was so much research focused on temporal but not spatial patterns of disease and injury?”

Delving further into the intersection of health and place, Beyer completed a doctorate in geography at the UI. Her dissertation research explored the integration of geographic information science and community engagement for colorectal cancer prevention and control.

The Power of Place

Now a health geographer and assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Beyer feels the tide is changing again. “It seems that public health has rediscovered place,” she says.

Beyer directs the Epidemiology Data Resource Center, where she uses geographic information science and epidemiology to investigate the role of place context in shaping health. And the demand for her expertise is on the rise.

“Many researchers want to map their health data,” she says, adding that a map makes it easier to understand large amounts of information.

“People respond visually to maps more than tables,” she says. “If you can connect people’s lived experiences of place with patterns of disease using a map, it can be very powerful.”

Maps help practitioners and planners identify spatial patterns of disease and injury, assess health care needs, develop policy, and investigate numerous other public health questions (see sidebar above).

Opportunities for collaboration between public health and geography continue to grow as mapping technologies improve, the price of specialized software decreases, and the availability of geocoded health data increases, Beyer says.

However, as place-based data become ever more granular, concerns about privacy arise. There are methods to “mask” data so an exact location or residence can’t be identified, Beyer notes, and health privacy regulations also address the collection and display of georeferenced data.

Community at the Core

Another concern is that of potentially harming a community’s reputation if it becomes viewed as “a problem place.”

“You can risk stigmatizing a neighborhood, but you can also generate interest in addressing the problems there,” answers Beyer. “Race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and place all interconnect. We can’t address public health problems without addressing spatial issues like racial segregation.”

Beyer embraces the role of community engagement in her work, an aspect that taps into her public health background.

“I came to geography through public health, and I feel that I’m firmly rooted in both,” Beyer says about her interdisciplinary career. “Public health, in particular, has a social justice aspect that speaks to my core motivation to do research.”

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