Investigating local variation in disease rates within high-rate regions identified using smoothing

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Exploratory disease maps are designed to identify risk factors of disease and guide appropriate responses to disease and help-seeking behaviour. However, when produced using aggregate-level administrative units, as is standard practice, disease maps may mislead users due to the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem (MAUP). Smoothed maps of fine-resolution data mitigate the MAUP but may still obscure spatial patterns and features. To investigate these issues, we mapped rates of Mental Health-Related Emergency Department (MHED) presentations in Perth, Western Australia, in 2018/19 using Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Statistical Areas Level 2 (SA2) boundaries and a recent spatial smoothing technique: the Overlay Aggregation Method (OAM). Then, we investigated local variation in rates within high-rate regions delineated using both approaches. The SA2-and OAM-based maps identified two and five high-rate regions, respectively, with the latter not conforming to SA2 boundaries. Meanwhile, both sets of high-rate regions were found to comprise a select number of localised areas with exceptionally high rates. These results demonstrate how, due to the MAUP, disease maps that are produced using aggregate-level administrative units are unreliable as a basis for delineating geographic regions of interest for targeted interventions. Instead, reliance on such maps to guide responses may compromise the efficient and equitable delivery of healthcare. Detailed investigation of local variation in rates within high-rate regions identified using both administrative units and smoothing is required to improve hypothesis generation and the design of healthcare responses.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1144
JournalGeospatial Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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