Medical Geography

A History and Overview of Medical Geography

Men wearing red cross symbols carry an injured girl
A young girl is rushed from a makeshift hospital.


Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Medical geography, sometimes called health geography, is an area of medical research that incorporates geographic techniques into the study of health around the world and the spread of diseases. In addition, medical geography studies the impact of climate and location on an individual's health as well as the distribution of health services. Medical geography is an important field because it aims to provide an understanding of health problems and improve the health of people worldwide based on the various geographic factors influencing them.

History of Medical Geography

Medical geography has a long history. Since the time of the Greek doctor, Hippocrates (5th-4th centuries BCE), people have studied the effect of location on one’s health. For example, early medicine studied the differences in diseases experienced by people living at high versus low elevation. It was easily understood that those at living low elevations near waterways would be more prone to malaria than those at higher elevations or in drier, less humid areas. Though the reasons for these variations were not fully understood at the time, the study of this spatial distribution of disease is the beginnings of medical geography.

This field of geography did not gain prominence until the mid-1800s though when cholera gripped London. As more and more people became ill, they believed they were becoming infected by vapors escaping the ground. John Snow, a doctor in London, believed that if he could isolate the source of the toxins infecting the population they and cholera could be contained.

As part of his study, Snow plotted the distribution of deaths throughout London on a map. After examining these locations, he found a cluster of unusually high deaths near a water pump on Broad Street. He then concluded that the water coming from this pump was the reason people were becoming sick and he had authorities remove the handle to the pump. Once people then stopped drinking the water, the number of cholera deaths dramatically decreased.

Snow’s use of mapping to find the source of disease is the earliest and most famous example of medical geography. Since he conducted his research, however, geographic techniques have found their place in a number of other medical applications.

Another example of geography aiding medicine occurred in the early 20th Century in Colorado. There, dentists noticed that children living in certain areas had fewer cavities. After plotting these locations on a map and comparing them with chemicals found in the groundwater, they concluded that the children with fewer cavities were clustered around areas that had high levels of fluoride. From there, the use of fluoride gained prominence in dentistry.

Medical Geography Today

Today, medical geography has a number of applications as well. Since the spatial distribution of disease is still a large matter of importance though, mapping plays a huge role in the field. Maps are created to show historic outbreaks of things like the 1918 influenza pandemic, for example, or current issues like the index of pain or Google Flu Trends across the United States. In the pain map example, factors like climate and environment can be considered to determine why high amounts of pain cluster where they do at any given time.

Other studies have also been conducted to show where the highest outbreaks of certain types of disease occur. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, for instance, uses what they call the Atlas of United States Mortality to look at a wide range of health factors across the U.S. Data ranges from the spatial distribution of people at different ages to places with the best and worst air quality. Subjects such as these are important because they have implications for the population growth of an area and the instances of health problems such as asthma and lung cancer. Local governments can then consider these factors when planning their cities and/or determining the best use of city funds.

The CDC also features a website for traveler’s health. Here, people can get information about the distribution of disease in countries worldwide and learn about the different vaccines needed to travel to such places. This application of medical geography is important for reducing or even stopping the spread of the world’s diseases through travel.

In addition to the United States’ CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) also features similar health data for the world with its Global Health Atlas. Here, the public, medical professionals, researchers, and other interested persons can gather data about the distribution of the world’s diseases in an attempt to find patterns of transmission and possibly cures to some of the more deadly illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and various cancers.

Obstacles in Medical Geography

Although medical geography is a prominent field of study today, geographers have some obstacles to overcome when gathering data. The first problem is associated with recording a disease’s location. Since people sometimes do not always go to a doctor when ill, it can be difficult to get entirely accurate data about a disease’s location. The second problem is associated with the accurate diagnosis of disease. While the third deals with the timely reporting of a disease’s presence. Often, doctor-patient confidentiality laws can complicate the reporting of a disease.

Since, data such as this needs to be as complete as possible to monitor the spread of illness effectively, the International Classification of Disease (ICD) was created to make sure that all countries use the same medical terms to classify a disease and the WHO helps monitor the global surveillance of diseases to help data get to geographers and other researchers as quickly as possible.

Through the efforts of the ICD, the WHO, other organizations, and local governments, geographers are in fact able to monitor the spread of disease fairly accurately and their work, like that of Dr. John Snow’s cholera maps, is essential to reducing the spread of and understanding contagious disease. As such, medical geography has become a significant area of expertise within the discipline.

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Briney, Amanda. "Medical Geography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). Medical Geography. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Medical Geography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).