Navigating the Intersection of GIS and Healthcare: Ensuring Privacy in the Digital Age

In the ever-evolving world of public health and healthcare, where data is as crucial as the treatments provided, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have emerged as pivotal tools. But, with great power comes great responsibility – particularly in protecting patient privacy. Today, we formally introduce two new tutorials from our health-focused GIS curriculum that were developed to help you learn best practices for safeguarding sensitive personal data.

Protecting Patient Data when Geocoding

The first tutorial, “Protect Patient Data when Geocoding,” is a critical lesson for any health organization venturing into GIS. Geocoding – converting addresses into geographic coordinates – is foundational to any effort aimed at understanding spatial patterns in health data. That said, address data when combined with health information falls under the purview of health privacy laws. In that situation, great care must be exercised. This tutorial will help you determine when to exercise such caution in geocoding and offers a step-by-step guide on how to geocode patient data while adhering to strict confidentiality protocols. You’ll learn different tools and techniques so that no matter how you choose to geocode your data in the ArcGIS system, you can ensure that sensitive information remains secure.

Cluster maps protect patient data.

De-identify Health Data for Visualization and Sharing

The second tutorial, “De-identify Health Data for Visualization and Sharing,” addresses another facet of data privacy – de-identification. As health organizations increasingly share data and maps for research, planning, and policy development, the risk of exposing personal health information escalates. This lesson provides strategies for de-identifying data, using statistical methods to ensure a “very low risk” of re-identification (the terminology stated in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996). Some of the options covered in detail include heat maps, point clustering, hot spot analysis, coordinate rounding, and different forms of aggregation across both space and time. Additionally, the tutorial touches upon advanced methods, ensuring a thorough understanding of effective data de-identification techniques. By applying these techniques, health professionals can share valuable data and insights without compromising patient privacy.

Heat maps de-identify health data for visualization and sharing.

Importance for Health Organizations

As you know, data breaches can have catastrophic consequences, particularly in the health sector where trust is paramount. These tutorials therefore go beyond education and skills building. They are also fundamental in building a framework of trust and ethical practice in health data management. For health organizations, mastering these skills is not optional but essential. They ensure compliance with legal standards like HIPAA in the United States and can protect your organization’s reputation for safeguarding patient privacy.

We believe that the intersection of GIS and healthcare is a frontier of immense potential. That potential is greatest when we can safely work with data at the most local scales. As we navigate this terrain, the responsibility to protect the individuals behind the data is vital. These tutorials from our health-focused GIS curriculum are more than technical guides; they are also a part of moving us toward a future where data empowers and protects in equal measure.

As we continue to harness the power of GIS in health, let us do so with a commitment to privacy and ethical responsibility. These tutorials are just the beginning of a journey toward a more secure, informed, and compassionate healthcare system.

About the authors

Dr. Este Geraghty, MD, MS, MPH, CPH, GISP, is the Chief Medical Officer at Esri where she leads strategy and messaging for the Health and Human Services sector. Dr. Geraghty has been with Esri since 2014 and has led business development and solution development in the market. During her time at Esri, Dr. Geraghty has helped organizations around the world use location intelligence to combat Zika virus, finish the fight against polio, grapple with the opioid crisis, combat homelessness, enhance health preparedness and response, inform strategic planning, optimize healthcare access, and traverse the COVID-19 pandemic while tackling inequity. Formerly the Deputy Director of the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics with the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Geraghty led the state vital records and public health informatics programs. There she engaged in statewide initiatives in meaningful use, health information exchange, open data and interoperability. While serving as an Associate Professor of Clinical Internal Medicine at the University of California at Davis she conducted research on geographic approaches to influencing health policy and advancing community development programs. In addition to her degrees in Medicine, Medical Informatics and Public Health, Dr. Geraghty is also a board-certified public health professional (CPH) and a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP).


Jared Shoultz is a health and human services technical lead at Esri with more than 25 years of experience in health GIS and informatics. Prior to Esri, he was a senior GIS research associate at the University of South Carolina Institute for Families in Society. He he also spent 12 years at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control as a deputy director, public health informatics director, and GIS manager. He works with public and private sector health organizations around the world to improve, modernize, and scale their operations with location intelligence.

As a privacy engineer at Esri, Jeff Rummelsburg ensures that privacy and technology intersect. He continuously works to design, redefine, and implement privacy frameworks and principles for Esri's products and services while complying with local and global privacy regulations and requirements. His previous position as an information security analyst at Esri adds a comprehensive user perspective to his work. Jeff is committed to advancing privacy protections in the ever-evolving digital world.

Robert is the product manager for ArcGIS Geocoding, ArcGIS Network Analyst tools, ArcGIS World Geocoder, and ArcGIS Data Appliance.

Bob Booth is a principal GIS content engineer on Esri’s Learn ArcGIS team.

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