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Stat Med. 2000 Sep 15-30;19(17-18):2493-519.

Statistical issues in the analysis of disease mapping data.

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Dipartimento di Scienze Sanitarie Applicate e Psicocomportamentali, Universitá di Pavia, Italy.


In this paper we discuss a number of issues that are pertinent to the analysis of disease mapping data. As an illustrative example we consider the mapping of larynx cancer across electoral wards in the North West Thames region of the U.K. Bayesian hierarchical models are now frequently employed to carry out such mapping. In a typical situation, a three-stage hierarchical model is specified in which the data are modelled as a function of area-specific relative risks at stage one; the collection of relative risks across the study region are modelled at stage two; and at stage three prior distributions are assigned to parameters of the stage two distribution. Such models allow area-specific disease relative risks to be 'smoothed' towards global and/or local mean levels across the study region. However, these models contain many structural and functional assumptions at different levels of the hierarchy; we aim to discuss some of these assumptions and illustrate their sensitivity. When relative risks are the endpoint of interest, it is common practice to assume that, for each of the age-sex strata of a particular area, there is a common multiplier (the relative risk) acting upon each of the stratum-specific risks in that area; we will examine this proportionality assumption. We also consider the choices of models and priors at stages two and three of the hierarchy, the effect of outlying areas, and an assessment of the level of smoothing that is being carried out. For inference, we concentrate on the description of the spatial variability in relative risks and on the association between the relative risks of larynx cancer and an area-level measure of socio-economic status.

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