There’s nothing new about health statistics. City, county, state and federal agencies have been reporting them for years. We’ve all seen stats on death rates for this disease or that. We know that the US has an appalling infant mortality rate compared to many other industrialized nations. We hear about motor vehicle accidents, homicides, and suicides every day on the local evening news. But there is nothing like a picture to help put health statistics in perspective. And even better, there’s nothing like a map of where you live to help you understand what’s going on around you. This month on our on-line program, Microsoft Health Tech Today, we reprise an interview I did earlier in the year with Bill Davenhall of ESRI, a company that specializes in geospatial data of every sort. This includes powerful software that overlays information about known environmental toxins with maps of where people live.
Now, our very own Bing search engine has taken a big step to give you insight to information about your health and where you live. Using a new application called Bing Health Maps you can monitor all kinds of population health and disease risk indicators for your state and county.
Since I’m most familiar with the geography and socioeconomic indicators where I live, I decided to put Bing Health Maps to the test in Washington State. Just go to www.bing.com/maps/explore and click on the small maps apps button in the lower left-hand region of the screen. Then, among the apps offered, click on Bing Health Maps. Select your state and the health indicator of interest and you’ll see a map overlaid with county by county statistics.
For now, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions about what you are seeing. For instance, due to air pollution, I might expect that lung cancer deaths would be higher in our big cities, particularly in the Puget Sound region around Seattle. It turns out the rate is low in Seattle compared to counties along the southwest coast of Washington state. Why is that? Perhaps it is because people are more likely to be smokers in those other counties where the economy is poorer and people tend to be less educated, or maybe it’s because people get better access to healthcare in the big cities.
Another surprise was looking at injuries due to motor vehicle accidents. Why are there fewer injuries around Seattle where traffic is horrendous compared to more rural parts of the state? Is it because people in Seattle are more likely to wear a seat belt, or is it because there’s more drinking and driving in logging and farming communities?
And how about deaths from heart disease? Again, the death rate appears to be lower in the big city compared to more rural areas of the state. Is this again because of easier access to top-notch medical facilities, or is it because people in the less populous, less affluent areas of the state are more likely to be obese, hypertensive and smoke?
I suspect if you start looking at statistics for your own state you’ll come up with just as many questions as answers. I think that’s part of what makes this so intriguing. What’s more important though, longer term, is how making such information increasingly transparent and understandable will help public agencies and even consumers become more knowledgeable about health, the relationship between health and where we live, and the decisions we make about how we live. That is the inherent beauty of making information more meaningful.
Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft