By: Shawna O’Hearn, Director, Global Health Office
After four months of education leave, I am celebrating my return to the Global Health Office with a renewed focus and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. In September 2018, I began a new journey to compliment my work and deepen my impact through a PhD in Health Geography.
I am honoured to work with Dr. Susan Elliott as part of her research lab: Geographies of Health in Place (GoHelP) at the University of Waterloo (https://uwaterloo.ca/geographies-of-health-in-place/). The University of Waterloo is part of the U15 and is the Canadian site for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). The SDSN works closely with United Nations agencies, multilateral financing institutions, the private sector, and civil society to share knowledge, engage research and help solve the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world.
You might be asking, why geography? Health geography emerged in the 1990s through a debate about the expansion of ‘medical geography’ to reflect the changes in research, practice and health care settings. This change expanded the work beyond the “concerns with disease and the interests of the medical world” to focus on “well-being and broader social models of health and health care” (Kearns and Moon, 2002).
This change in understanding health care and making connections with geography were highlighted through the work of Dr. Trevor Dummer and his research published in the CMAJ. He explains that “geography and health are intrinsically linked. Where we are born, live, study and work directly influences our health experiences: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the viruses we are exposed to and the health services we can access. The social, built and natural environments affect our health and well-being in ways that are directly relevant to health policy.”
There are three main themes in the geography of health: disease ecology, health care delivery, and environment and health. Disease ecology involves the study of infectious diseases (e.g., malaria, HIV/AIDS, infant diarrhea). The study of health care delivery includes spatial patterns of health care provision and issues like inequalities in health. Environment and health make the connections between environmental hazards research with health geography. Health geography contributes to how local geographies shape disease diffusion, health risk perceptions, social determinants of health and health inequalities (Rosenberg, 2017).
Where we live matters, but not just for the reasons we might think. While we might associate the weather or terrain with a particular region or location, it’s also important to consider the social forces that help explain how where we live shapes our health and even our life expectancy.
Geographers play an important role in collaborating with epidemiologists, public health professionals and researchers, professionals in sectors such as transportation, or with those who focus on water and food security. Geographers add spatial understanding to public health challenges. Context and environment are fundamentally important, particularly how they impact health.
Stay tuned for more updates on my research and the importance of geography on our local and global health issues.
Happy New Year!