10 Medical Geography –
Concepts and Terminology


What is Medical Geography?  As we know, Geography often overlaps with other fields of study. This textbook is designed to present several of the sub-fields of Geography.  As the world has suffered through years of the COVID pandemic, it is appropriate to consider the sub-field of Medical Geography too.

Medicinenet.com defines Medical Geography as “a hybrid between geography and medicine dealing with the geographic aspects of health and healthcare.”  Indeed, this is how Geography usually overlaps with other fields of study or endeavor, by examining the geographic aspects of that other field.

The medical geography of a population is affected by a variety of factors at any given location.  In fact, it has been said that the single most effective determinant of life expectancy in the United States is zip code.  That is not to say that the location of your post office influences your health and well-being.  However, various geographic features of your location (zip code) very clearly impact your health.  These features include average income, crime rate, pollution levels, access to medical care, and a number of other variable circumstances where you live. Geographers study these sorts of things, often statistically determining relationships and correlations between life expectancy and other human variables, between rates of disease and levels of poverty, between cancer rates and pollution levels, and so on.

Additionally, Medical Geography considers the implications of demographic patterns on medical circumstances in a location, region, or country.  The stages of the Demographic Transition occur in part due to advances in health care, sanitation, and food supply.  These contribute to lowering the death rate, thus triggering movement from stage one to stage two in the Demographic Transition. By the time that countries reach stage four (and stage five) in the transition, their populations have grown old, as life expectancies increased with corresponding advances in medicine and agriculture.  However, with older and older populations, medical needs change substantially.  In America’s stage four, long term care facilities for elderly population have grown rapidly in number and size. America’s older population places pressure on the Social Security system and drives political debate on the health care system in the United States.  Numerous European countries, some with more deaths than births, face noteworthy challenges.  Medical Geography examines these issues.

Yet the year 2020 brings more attention to Medical Geography because of the coronavirus.  The maps that you see in the newspaper or online show how Medical Geography uses GIS (Geography Information Systems) to display patterns of the spread of disease. GIS not only shows where outbreaks of disease are located, but also can be used to predict sizes and paths of outbreaks. This link goes to a map was created using the popular ArcGIS software and pictures patterns of the COVID-19 virus across the United States. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

The famous historical example of using maps to counter disease concerned the 1854 cholera outbreak in on Broad Street in London, England. Physician John Snow mapped the outbreak. The geographic patterns on the map pointed to a waterborne disease contaminating a city water pump, counter to the contemporary belief that cholera was an airborne disease.  The author Stephen Johnson chronicled this history very well in his book, “The Ghost Map.”

Now the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses maps, of course; however, the CDC and current geographic study charts disease through the maps and analysis of GIS.

Some scholars seek to divide this sub-field into two categories – Medical Geography and Health Geography.


Did You Know?

A scene in the Syfy series Helix showed a CDC official speaking inspirationally at a staff meeting in describing the resolution of the cholera outbreak in London.

The medical geography term vector borrows from mathematics.  A medical vector is the carrier that delivers the disease, but not the disease itself.  Thus, the mosquito is the vector that carries the disease malaria.


Cited and additional bibliography:

Columbia University, Epidemiology. 2021. “ArcGIS Web Application.” Www.arcgis.com. 2021. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=ade6ba85450c4325a12a5b9c09ba796c.

Johnson, Steven. 2006. The Ghost Map : The Story of London’s Deadliest Epidemic, and How It Changed the Way We Think about Disease, Cities, Science, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead ; London.

moshera_uwm. 2020. “COVID-19 Deaths By Milwaukee Neighborhood.” Arcgis.Com. 2020. https://www.arcgis.com/home/item.html?id=90194541588449b4bbd82b780fe33596.

Shepherd, Marshall. 2020. “Why Geography Is A Key Part Of Fighting The COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak.” Forbes. March 5, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2020/03/05/why-the-discipline-of-geography-is-a-key-part-of-the-coronavirus-fight/#7485aedb4f21.

Shiel, Jr., William C. 2018. “Definition of Medical Geography.” MedicineNet. December 11, 2018. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=18879.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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