7. Health Geography in British Columbia

Types of Health Geographies

Health is understood as the physical, mental and in some cases the spiritual state of a person or population. It is more that just the absence of sickness or disease; the notion encompasses individual and community perception of “good” or “bad” heath. The right to health, which Health Canada and all provincial health services ascribe to, was set out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1] incorporated in 1948.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. –Universal Declaration of Human Rights 25(1). 1948

Health affects entire populations and is a key determinate to our well-being, the overall individual and social state of wellness, and quality of life. Thus, it is monitored by provincial and local health authorities in Canada. To better monitor health conditions and access to health care, public health surveillance systems need to be in place. Public health surveillance is the collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of data on public health issues and its social and environmental determinants. These data are collected in order to better understand spatial epidemiology, which is the study of patterns, causes and effects of health and diseases among certain populations.

A geographic information systems (GIS) can be used to monitor and track health information for the study of epidemiology and for health surveillance purposes. GIS is not just a technological “fix” for health and mobility problems but rather a device that has the capability of informing decision-makers and the public about where needs exist. For example, GIS has been used to offer decision support for health catchment areas for planning health resources in dispersed populations in rural BC (Schuurman, Randall, & Berube, 2011).

Telehealth applications allow physicians to provide care at a distance and provide a promising and unique means to provide health care and health education to dispersed populations. Northern portions of British Columbia may benefit from communication with a physician or nurse through the use of communication technologies. These technologies make it possible to communicate despite great distances that separate doctors and their patients. (Read more about the uptake of telehealth in British Columbia in this Globe and Mail article[2] about Medeo, a telehealth provider in BC).

Mobile health (mHealth) is an emerging field; it is the practice of medicine and public health supported by mobile devices. mHealth can be used for data collection for monitoring patients, informing diagnosis, organizing electronic medical records and for data dissemination by presenting health care resources, recommendation and education from doctors to patients using the mobile devices.

Other health geographies in BC include investigating geographies of care in rural and northern communities, health inequities, Aboriginal health, child and family care, palliative and other types of care giving, medical tourism, and geographies of mental health and addictions, and the intersection of geographies of health and aging. These health geographies are often concerned with access, equity, experience and outcomes. For example, First Nations people in Canada have higher rates of morbidity, trauma, illness, suicide, addiction, mental health issues and unwanted teenage pregnancy. Understanding how to address those issues from a comprehensive health promotion perspective is being explored on various fronts. Political health geographies of HIV/AIDS in BC have also been an active area of inquiry.  

More recently in health geography, the comprehensive understandings of health and place that are promoted has lead to a focus on intersectionality, which is an approach that prioritizes the interrelationships of gender, class, race and ethnicity and other social divisions and seeks to understand how power relations structure these relationships. As it is applied to health geography, intersectionality  also considers these interrelationships with spatiality, or the way that place also factors into this complex system that contributes to a state of health.