Background: Knowledge regarding the geographical distribution of diseases is essential in public health in order to define strategies to improve the health of populations and quality of life. The present study aims to establish a methodology to choose a suitable geographic aggregation level of data and an appropriated method which allow us to analyze disease spatial patterns in mainland Portugal, avoiding the "small numbers problem." Malignant cancer mortality data for 2009-2013 was used as a case study. Methods: To achieve our aims, we used official data regarding the mortality by all malignant cancer, between 2009 and 2013, and the mainland Portuguese resident population in 2011. Three different spatial aggregation levels were applied: Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics, level III (28 areas), municipalities (278 areas), and parishes (4050 areas). Standardized Mortality Ratio (SMR) and relative risk (RR) were computed with Besag, York and Mollié model (BYM) for the evaluation of geographic patterns of mortality data. We also estimated Global Moran's I, Local Moran's I, and posterior probability (PP) for the spatial cluster analysis. Results: Our results show that the occurrence of lower and higher extreme values of the standardized mortality ratio tend to increase with the decrease of data spatial aggregation. In addition, the number of local clusters is higher at small spatial aggregation levels, although the area of each cluster is generally smaller. Regarding global clustering, data forms clusters at all considered levels. Relative risk (RR) computed by Besag, York and Mollié model, in turn, also shows different results at the municipalities and parishes levels. However, the difference is smaller than the difference obtained by SMR computation. This statement is supported by the coefficient variation values. Conclusions: Our findings show that the choice of spatial data aggregation level has high importance in the research results, as different aggregation levels can lead to distinct results. In terms of the case study, we conclude that for the period of 2009-2013, cancer mortality in mainland Portugal formed clusters. The most suitable applicable spatial scale and method seemed to be at the municipalities level and Besag, York and Mollié model, respectively. However, further studies should be conducted in order to provide greater support to these results.
- Cancer mortality
- Spatial aggregation level