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Improving healthcare access in the Pacific Northwest requires better planning, infrastructure

More than 80% of people in Portland, Oregon and 51% of people in Seattle have poor access to their care, findings show.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

University of British Columbia researchers have developed a data science method that analyzes how easily citizens can access hospitals and walk-in health clinics -- and it's a tool that could eventually help city planners and policymakers build smarter, more equitable cities.

The researchers wrote data algorithms for three of the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest -- Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, Oregon -- comparing each city's population data with its public transit and hospital networks to see if citizens can easily access healthcare by transit or foot. Results showed that all three cities had large numbers of citizens without good access to healthcare.

They defined "good access" as being able to reach at least two hospitals or three walk-in clinics within half an hour of their homes via public transit or simply walking.

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By those standards, 80% of people in Portland and 51% of people in Seattle don't have good access to healthcare. The number for Vancouver was lower, at 37%.


Low-income families typically rely more on public transportation than do those who come from affluence. Seniors in particular are more likely to use public transportation. Since those groups also tend to have special mobility or other healthcare needs, lack of access hits them the hardest.

Worldwide, many cities are spending money -- sometimes in the billions of dollars -- to overhaul their systems and services, and by improving their open-source data, the authors said planners have the capacity to design better transit networks and essential services that increase healthcare access for these vulnerable populations. This, they said, balances economic growth with the rights and needs of marginalized citizens.

The team was partially comprised of researchers from the Urban Predictive Analytics Lab at UBC. The lab uses computational and data sciences to tackle urban planning challenges. This latest research relied heavily on open-source data including census data and transit information.


Healthcare access can be an issue on multiple fronts. Data published April showed that, compared to privately insured patients, people who lack insurance or use Medicaid are more likely to be transferred to another hospital after receiving initial treatment in the emergency department.

The uninsured are also at greater risk of being discharged from an ED and not admitted to the hospital. These findings reveal disparities in access to hospital care linked to insurance coverage.

Twitter: @JELagasse

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