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Defining Spatial Epidemiology: A Systematic Review and Re-Orientation.

Epidemiology 2024 March 23
BACKGROUND: Spatial epidemiology has emerged as an important subfield of epidemiology over the past quarter century. We trace the origins of spatial epidemiology and note that its emergence coincided with technological developments in spatial statistics and geography. We hypothesize that spatial epidemiology makes important contributions to descriptive epidemiology and analytic risk factor studies, but is not yet aligned with epidemiology's current focus on causal inference and intervention.

METHODS: We conducted a systematic review of studies indexed in PubMed that used the term "spatial epidemiolog*" in the title, abstract, or keywords. Excluded papers were not written in English, examined disease in animals, or reported biologic pathogen distribution only. We coded the included papers into five categories (review, demonstration of method, descriptive, analytic, intervention) and recorded the unit of analysis (i.e., individual vs. ecological). We additionally examined papers coded as analytic ecologic studies using scales for lexical content.

RESULTS: A total of 482 papers met the inclusion criteria, including 76 reviews, 117 demonstrations of methods, 122 descriptive studies, 167 analytic studies, and 0 intervention studies. Demonstration studies were most common from 2006 to 2014, and analytic studies were most common after 2015. Among the analytic ecologic studies, those published in later years used more terms relevant to spatial statistics (IRR =1.3, 95%CI: 1.1, 1.5) and causal inference (IRR =1.1, 95%CI: 1.1, 1.2).

CONCLUSIONS: Spatial epidemiology is an important and growing subfield of epidemiology. We suggest a re-orientation to help align its practice with the goals of contemporary epidemiology.

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