We’ve recently looked at the ways that the Internet can help both patients and doctors find information about health care. In rural settings, telemedecine systems allow local doctors to perform specialized procedures with help from afar. And you and I, regardless of where we live, can now visit medical websites online to check up on our symptoms, find a health and wellness plan or get the low-down on the latest trends in medicine.
It seems only reasonable, then, that health care policy-makers also would have Internet-based tools available at their fingertips. One very helpful internet-based tool has been created in Los Angeles County called HealthyCity.org.
The website allows users to create detailed maps of Los Angeles County that contain geographic and socioeconomic data, including poverty rates, and the number, type and location of social service providers. The purpose is to use the maps to figure out the most effective way to deliver quality health care to all members of the community
Some of the challenges that Los Angeles and other urban centers face are:
- An uneven distribution of service providers: While cities have some of the best medical facilities nationwide and are able to attract large numbers of doctors, services are not equally distributed through-out inner-city areas.
- A high number of uninsured, underinsured and poor individuals: Roughly 11.2% of urban Americans live in poverty, many are also uninsured or insured through Medicaid.
- Those with Medicaid coverage might not be able to find someone to see them, as doctors are paid significantly less for Medicaid patients than for those with Medicare or private insurance. As a result, general practitioners try to limit the number of Medicaid patients they accept.
- The uninsured and underinsured tend to rely on the emergency room to deal with chronic and/or serious illnesses. This is a common factor driving up health care costs nationwide.
- Environmental disadvantages, also known as the Urban Health Penalty: Due to economic decline, job loss and a decaying physical environment, urban residents sometimes face serious health and social problems such as lead poisoning, violence, HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, poor nutrition and chronic disease. People dealing with these problems require assistance from a number of service providers, in addition to a primary care doctor.
HealthyCity.org helps decision-makers to
- 1) Look at the entire county and determine which neighborhoods have the greatest need for certain providers, and
- 2) Plan for a range of services, from childcare to primary care to mental health counseling to be available in each neighborhood (thus reducing long travel times).
So who is the website meant for?
- Anyone can access the website and construct a map. Non-profit organizations, developers and local governments seem to be the target users.
- The website was created by the Advancement Project, which is a civil rights and policy “action tank” with offices in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
- The goal of HealthyCity.org is to provide an accessible tool that can be used to influence policy decisions at the local, state and national levels.
- Non-profits use the maps when arguing for common sense service decisions.
- Local governments might use the maps to design strategic, comprehensive, long-term plans for service delivery in LA.
The maps are an asset because they concretely and specifically show where, and what kind of, services are needed. They can assist in making primary medical and social services more accessible, which cuts back on pricey emergency room visits in the long-run. Best of all, though, is that HealthyCity.org makes state-of-the-art mapping technology available to everyone in a user-friendly, online format. It’s another creative example of how we can use information technology (IT) systems and the Internet to improve health outcomes.