By Elizabeth Zakaim
International medical geography and public health expert Amy Blatt presented her lecture, “Geomedicine: How Locations Affect Your Health,” as part of the College’s weekly Brown Bag Series on Friday, Feb. 23 in the Library Auditorium.
Her lecture, based on research and insights from her latest book, “Health, Science and Place: A New Model,” focuses on the role of geography in healthcare and the importance of residential history in the progress of disease –– a perspective on medicine Blatt finds many physicians have largely overlooked.
Blatt is a medical geographer and public health researcher. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Stanford University and her PhD in geography from the University of Cincinnati. She is currently employed at Vanguard, according to James Day, the assistant dean of the School of Arts and Communication.
Blatt is also a former faculty member at West Chester University and a guest lecturer at Villanova University, and served as guest editor of the International Journal of Applied Geospatial Research and the Journal of Map and Geography Libraries.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2007 that 70 percent of the determinants of overall health are attributed to environmental factors and healthcare quality, while only 30 percent are due to genetics.
“(Your doctor) checks your cholesterol, your glucose level, why doesn’t he check your surroundings –– the different toxic exposures that you’ve been around all your life accumulate in your body in silent and deadly ways,” Blatt said.
One recent example of the geographical impact on public health was the Zika virus epidemic in early 2014 during the World Cup. This was a perfect example of a “mass gathering” –– a public event attended by at least 25,000 people for an extended period of time –– and also the perfect breeding ground for pathogens to spread to vulnerable hosts, according to Blatt.
“Through mass gatherings, infectious diseases can be spread by global travelers to the local community and then again from the local community to the global travelers,” Blatt said.
There were only 80 cases of the virus in 2016, but by March of 2017 there were more than 5,000 cases in the U.S., according to Blatt. Geographers were able to reveal where the disease patterns developed and how many people were affected.
Geomedicine provides ways to track epidemics like the Zika virus by mapping the spread of diseases in certain populations, in order to stop it from being transmitted. Blatt described how until relatively recently, Nigerians were still using hand-drawn maps to target different populations that needed polio vaccinations.
The World Health Organization and the Bill Gates Foundation deployed GPS and mobile mapping units for public health officials to more accurately and efficiently distribute the polio vaccine to the Nigerian population, according to Blatt.
Geography also impacts the quality of patient care. Blatt showed a video describing the research of Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, who developed the idea of medical hotspots, or certain geographical areas where patients are receiving low-quality care for too high of a price.
With the locations of specific patients in different areas of Camden, New Jersey, Brenner helped organize the Camden Coalition, a team of social workers and nurses who make home visits to patients suffering from chronic illnesses, but don’t have the proper healthcare plans to get the best treatment.
In the video, Brenner introduced one such patient named Derek who suffered from asthma and seizures and made 35 visits to the emergency room in a period of six months. After he started his work with coalition, that number went from 35 to just two.
Blatt emphasized how ideas like Brenner’s can have a large scale impact on Americans who are negatively affected by the current healthcare system. Brenner’s idea is in the process of being applied not just to Camden, but across the country.
Geomedicine programs are being developed at universities around the country, such as the University of Michigan and Duke University, and Blatt sees hope for this new perspective on medicine and its impact on patients on local and global levels.
“If we can understand why people move, how they move, the notion of geographic perspectives will allow us to bridge the conceptual divide between public health and patient care,” Blatt said.