Incorporating Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into program evaluation: lessons from a rural medicine initiative

J Am Board Fam Med. Jan-Feb 2010;23(1):59-66. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2010.01.090167.


Purpose: To address the shortage of physicians practicing in rural areas of Michigan, the Wayne State University School of Medicine developed an integrated rural core curriculum to interest students in rural practice careers. Here we focus on the evaluation strategy used to determine the extent to which students in the new rural medicine interest group who self-identified as selecting a rural clerkship or externship did secure a clinical training experience in a rural setting.

Methods: Three measures of rurality were compared to determine whether students were placed in rural training settings: (1) the percentage of the county living in rural areas; (2) a county-level dichotomous measure of rural/nonrural; and (3) a dichotomous measure based on urban area boundaries within the county. Practice address and geographic data were integrated into geographic information systems software, which we used to map out rural characteristics of Michigan counties through a process called thematic mapping; this shows characteristic variation by color-shading geographic features. In addition, reference maps were created showing the boundaries of urban areas and metropolitan/micropolitan areas. Once these processes were completed, we overlaid the practice location on the contextual-level geographic features to produce a visual representation of the relationship between student placement and rural areas throughout the state.

Results: The outcome of student placement in rural practices varied by the definition of rural. We concluded that, although students were not placed in the most rural areas of Michigan, they received clerkship or externship training near rural areas or in semirural areas.

Conclusion: This process evaluation had a direct impact on program management by highlighting gaps in preceptor recruitment. A greater effort is being made to recruit physicians for more rural areas of the state rather than urban and semirural areas. Geographic information systems mapping also defined levels of ruralism for students to help them make informed selections of training sties. This is especially important for students who are not sure about a rural experience and might be discouraged by placement in a remote rural area.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Career Choice
  • Censuses
  • Clinical Clerkship / statistics & numerical data
  • Curriculum
  • Family Practice / education*
  • Geographic Information Systems*
  • Humans
  • Medically Underserved Area*
  • Michigan
  • Needs Assessment / statistics & numerical data
  • Preceptorship
  • Program Evaluation*
  • Rural Health / statistics & numerical data*
  • Urban Health / statistics & numerical data