When you make a visit to your doctor’s office, you typically have to fill out a form that details your medical and lifestyle history- Do you smoke, drink? What medications are you currently taking? Has anyone in your family had cancer, heart disease, a history of stomach ulcers? Any allergies? Any surgeries? Yet Bill Davenhall, a health and human services expert, wants to know where you’ve lived, arguing that genetics, lifestyle, and a person’s environment paint the best, most complete picture of a person’s health risk factors. With a new iPhone and desktop mapping tool, called ‘My Place History‘ that links public health information with a person’s environmental experience, Davenhall hopes to close that knowledge gap.
Davenhall arrived at his conclusions when he suffered a heart attack in 2001, which prompted him to look through his medical history for risk factors. After extensive research, he realized a large chunk of data was missing- his place history. He started mapping the major areas he’d lived in; he’d grown up in Scranton, PA near a coal factory, had spent a significant portion of his life living next to a rubber-making factory in Louisville, KY, and was currently residing in smog-ridden Los Angeles. When he cross-referenced his place history with government geo-data mapping toxin levels, he realized he had unknowingly primed himself to be a perfect candidate for a heart attack.
What existed (and still exist today) in two separate vacuums was Davenhall’s medical history and readily available geographical health data. Today, Davenhall is a champion of geo-medicine, attempting to bridge the gap between the two data sets by incorporating environmental data into medical records, arguing that had his doctors known his place history, he (and they) would have been better equipped to know his potential health risks:
While I cannot prove that any one of my specific environments caused my heart attack, there was plenty of evidence that some of the contaminants I had been exposed to in places where I had lived were well known precursors to circulatory and respiratory disease—and yes, heart attacks. It was at this moment that I realized that a physician looking at my health history, in the absence of any specific information about my unique environmental exposures (geographically), would be less likely to warn me, let alone guide me away from the oncoming train wreck…Every place I have ever lived and will live is part of my medical history. The impact of breathing bad air in many of the places I have lived will surely follow me wherever I go, and therefore, my medical record should be automatically informed about new research ﬁndings of relevant health risks. Unfortunately, today my medical record, and probably yours as well, is already a vast collection of clinical facts, observations, test results and diagnostic conclusions but remains silent about the accumulation of environmental health impacts and risks.
Davenhall asks, what would your place history tell you about your own health risks? With the added context of place history, would you be able to better see what health issues may be in your future?
To that end, Davenhall’s company Esri, the largest geographic information system (GIS) software developer in the world, developed ‘My Place History’ to let anyone see their environmental risk factors by simply typing in the zip codes of where they’ve lived to see what toxins they’ve been exposed to over time. While the platform lacks a linkage between common health problems and the contributing toxins, it has the potential to arm patients and health care professionals with another valuable pool of data to assess an individual’s- and a community’s- elevated risks, and is a positive development for how to make more informed, healthier lifestyle choices.
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