Improving Access to Canadian Healthcare Using Open Data with Scott Bell

By Drew Bush

Scott Bell is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

Scott Bell is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

If you ask a Canadian what makes them most proud of their country, free and easily accessible healthcare would often be near the top of the list. But for one Geothink researcher, this commonly held narrative has been disproven and led him to help those in need of better healthcare.

“People in the north and some rural areas just don’t have that many doctors per person or have very low rates of doctors per 1,000 people,” Scott Bell, a professor of Geography and Planning at University of Saskatchewan, said. “And I think one of the things that really captured my interest here is that as Canadians and in Canada, we sort of expect equitable healthcare. And I think a lot of people—who have easy access to healthcare, are happy with their doctor’s care, and their ability to make appointments, and things like that—don’t think too much about the fact that not all Canadians have access to the free healthcare services we should all have access to. So that’s kind of a guiding principle.”

To draw the above conclusions, Bell brings a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) perspective to examine a broad variety of areas in human health. For example, he has collaborated on interdisciplinary health, environmental, and social science research that uses both public and private data including from surveys he has conducted himself and data he’s collected from provincial colleges of physicians and surgeons.

To get a sense of which populations are being served or not served by healthcare, his research compares the above data against population data from Statistics Canada (particularly, he says, the 2006 Long Form Census). This year he has worked with the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Dentistry and also examined the accessibility of Canadian food in terms of finding healthy eating options.

“My interest in health research really is focused on disparities in accessibility, and accessibility is a word that people use in day-to-day conversations a lot,” he told Geothink. “In terms of health, it’s a pretty complicated concept that is related not just to services themselves, where and when they’re available, when a clinic might be open, and how many doctors are there, and how many bookings they can take, or have open for drop-in or scheduling. But is also related to the patients themselves.”

It’s these consumer issues that can complicate how healthcare services can be made more accessible.

“Access can be affected by our own personal opinions, or beliefs, or worldviews, or preferences,” he said. “So if I prefer to be seen by a male doctor and my neighborhood is filled with female doctors, the physical measure of access might show that there are lots of doctors near me and I should have great accessibility. But I’m not willing to see any of those doctors.”

He has also found that when GIS is used to look at extreme situations in specific locations in Canada by just the arrangement of doctors, it’s not true that everyone has access to healthcare across the country. But identifying such a problem by locating those most in need often is the first step in starting a conversation to correct such problems.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at