 Research
 Open Access
 Open Peer Review
A novel framework for validating and applying standardized small area measurement strategies
 Tanja Srebotnjak†^{1},
 Ali H Mokdad†^{1} and
 Christopher JL Murray†^{1}Email author
https://doi.org/10.1186/14787954826
© Srebotnjak et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010
 Received: 3 June 2010
 Accepted: 29 September 2010
 Published: 29 September 2010
Abstract
Background
Local measurements of health behaviors, diseases, and use of health services are critical inputs into local, state, and national decisionmaking. Small area measurement methods can deliver more precise and accurate locallevel information than direct estimates from surveys or administrative records, where sample sizes are often too small to yield acceptable standard errors. However, small area measurement requires careful validation using approaches other than conventional statistical methods such as insample or crossvalidation methods because they do not solve the problem of validating estimates in datasparse domains.
Methods
A new general framework for small area estimation and validation is developed and applied to estimate Type 2 diabetes prevalence in US counties using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The framework combines the three conventional approaches to small area measurement: (1) pooling data across time by combining multiple survey years; (2) exploiting spatial correlation by including a spatial component; and (3) utilizing structured relationships between the outcome variable and domainspecific covariates to define four increasingly complex model types  coined the Naive, Geospatial, Covariate, and Full models. The validation framework uses direct estimates of prevalence in large domains as the gold standard and compares model estimates against it using (i) all available observations for the large domains and (ii) systematically reduced sample sizes obtained through random sampling with replacement. At each sampling level, the model is rerun repeatedly, and the validity of the model estimates from the four model types is then determined by calculating the (average) concordance correlation coefficient (CCC) and (average) root mean squared error (RMSE) against the gold standard. The CCC is closely related to the intraclass correlation coefficient and can be used when the units are organized in groups and when it is of interest to measure the agreement between units in the same group (e.g., counties). The RMSE is often used to measure the differences between values predicted by a model or an estimator and the actually observed values. It is a useful measure to capture the precision of the model or estimator.
Results
All model types have substantially higher CCC and lower RMSE than the direct, singleyear BRFSS estimates. In addition, the inclusion of relevant domainspecific covariates generally improves predictive validity, especially at small sample sizes, and their leverage can be equivalent to a five to tenfold increase in sample size.
Conclusions
Small area estimation of important health outcomes and risk factors can be improved using a systematic modeling and validation framework, which consistently outperformed singleyear direct survey estimates and demonstrated the potential leverage of including relevant domainspecific covariates compared to pure measurement models. The proposed validation strategy can be applied to other disease outcomes and risk factors in the US as well as to resourcescarce situations, including lowincome countries. These estimates are needed by public health officials to identify atrisk groups, to design targeted prevention and intervention programs, and to monitor and evaluate results over time.
Keywords
 Root Mean Square Error
 Diabetes Prevalence
 National Health Interview Survey
 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System
 Concordance Correlation Coefficient
Background
There is no shortage of healthrelated information in the US. However, the large number of surveys and administrative systems that collect health information at the national level stands in contrast to the relative scarcity of accurate and precise locallevel measurements. For example, national data sources such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) do not provide measurements for counties or even states. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), with a sample size of more than 414,000 in 2008, is the world's largest ongoing national telephone survey. Even though the survey collects data in nearly all US counties, measurements of leading health outcomes and risk factors at the county level are not routinely produced due to small sample sizes in the majority of counties, although the CDC has produced countylevel diabetes prevalence estimates since 2004 with most recent estimates for 2007. For example, in 2008, more than 80% of counties had sample sizes of less than 100. Some states purchase enhanced BRFSS samples to generate local measurements, demonstrating demand for this type of information, but for the majority of counties, these measurements are not available. The BRFSS Selected Metropolitan/Micropolitan Area Risk Trends (SMART) project analyzes selected risk factors for Metro and Micropolitan Statistical Areas (MMSAs) with more than 500 respondents to identify the status and trends of important health problems at the local level. However, out of 3,141 US counties, only 177 MMSAs were SMART counties in 2008. On the other hand, some projects, such as the County Health Rankings [1, 2], have used sparse data from a single year to directly report on and compare counties, despite the risks of drawing inaccurate inferences.
Small area measurement methods refer to a suite of statistical methods aimed at filling the need for better local information. The main procedures include direct domain estimation, indirect domain estimation, and small area modeling. Direct domain estimation uses available sample units in the domain to estimate the quantity of interest, leading to unacceptably large standard errors for small domains. Indirect estimation implicitly makes assumptions about how domains are related in time and/or space to increase the effective sample size for small domains [3]. Indirect domain estimation includes: synthetic estimators (i.e., using a reliable estimator for a large domain to derive an estimator for the small domain contained within the large domain under the assumption that the small domain has the same characteristics as the large domain); composite estimators (i.e., weighted averages of sample estimates for the same domain but from different surveys); and JamesStein estimators (also called shrinkage estimators because they shrink the mean squared error, sometimes also used in conjunction with the direct estimator in socalled "limited translation estimators"). In contrast to indirect domain estimation, small area modeling is explicit about the assumptions of relatedness in space and/or time and has variably used three strategies to deal with the limited availability of survey and administrative data: pooling data over several years [4, 5]; borrowing strength in space by exploiting spatial correlations [6]; and using structured relationships with covariates to predict the quantity of interest [7]. Few studies, however, have used all three approaches in a consistent fashion at a national level. Li et al [8, 9] used mixedeffects models to estimate obesity and smoking prevalence in 398 communities in Massachusetts using 19992005 BRFSS data. Elliott and Davis [10] used a dualframe estimation approach to link NHIS and BRFSS data for estimating adult male tobacco prevalence in 584 counties in 19992000. Small area statistical methods have been used in several studies, including one nationwide assessment of diabetes by the CDC [7–9, 11] and vaccination coverage monitoring during the 200405 influenza season in the US [12]. Recently, Caldwell et al [13] used a Bayesian multilevel approach to estimate 2005 countylevel diabetes prevalence for the population 20 years and older, pooling 20042006 BRFSS data and the county's posterior rank distribution to identify counties with high or low diagnosed diabetes burdens. They used designbased direct estimates for 232 large counties to assess the validity of the model prevalence estimates. Congdon and Lloyd [14] applied a binary personlevel random effects regression model using individual risk factors from the 2005 BRFSS and small area characteristics for 32,000 ZIP code tabulation areas. Spatial information is incorporated at the state level. But standardized methods have otherwise not been articulated, validated, or widely applied to health behavior measurements in the US.
The main limitation of small area methods for local health measurement has been the difficulty in validating a particular approach for a given health problem. Standard approaches such as insample fit statistics and cross validation are not useful in a small area setting as they do not adequately answer the question of how well these methods work compared to undertaking a large sample survey in each locality. Within the limitations of insample data, a variety of authors have explored the theory and metrics for validating model estimates [15, 16]. Nevertheless, the ultimate test of predictive validity, i.e., comparing the results against the de facto gold standard, has rarely been implemented for small area measurement in public health.
In this paper, a standardized approach to small area measurement is proposed that uses all three traditions: using data from several years, exploiting spatial correlation using estimates from neighboring counties, and using structured relationships with arealevel covariates to inform estimates. The critical innovation is that we create a validation environment in which the most appropriate measurement strategy can be selected and tailored to the data and variable under study. This approach is illustrated by estimating Type 2 diabetes prevalence for all counties in the US for 2008 from the 20002008 BRFSS.
Methods
Four Families of Statistical Models
The four model types and their respective specifications.
Model Family  Individual Race  Coefficient on Time  Spatial covariate  Countylevel covariates 

Naive  Excluded  Fixed  No  No 
Excluded  Random  No  No  
Included  Fixed  No  No  
Included  Random  No  No  
Geospatial  Excluded  Fixed  Yes, from naive model  No 
Excluded  Random  Yes, from naive model  No  
Included  Fixed  Yes, from naive model  No  
Included  Random  Yes, from naive model  No  
Covariate  Excluded  Fixed  No  Yes 
Excluded  Random  No  Yes  
Included  Fixed  No  Yes  
Included  Random  No  Yes  
Full  Excluded  Fixed  Yes, from covariate model  Yes 
Excluded  Random  Yes, from covariate model  Yes  
Included  Fixed  Yes, from covariate model  Yes  
Included  Random  Yes, from covariate model  Yes 
Thus, the basic model is a generalized linear mixedeffects regression model with binomial outcome (Y) and logit link function. The combinations of the four model families and four model specifications generate a total of 16 models for each sex, which can be summarized as follows:
The personlevel predictions of the outcome Y can be aggregated to county prevalence rates for men and women using the US age and county race/ethnic composition for each sex. That is, we estimated the likelihood of having the outcome of interest for one person in each age and race/ethnic group and aggregated these using the respective proportion of people in the age and race/ethnic group for the given sex and the prediction year as weights.
Test Case: Type 2 Diabetes Prevalence
The outcome variable of interest  Type 2 diabetes  was defined as 1 if the respondent answered "yes" to the question: "Have you ever been told by a doctor that you have diabetes?" and zero otherwise. Pregnancyrelated temporary diabetes was also coded as zero. Missing, refused, or don't know answers were excluded from the analysis.
Thus, the logit of the probability of a person j in county i of sex k to have Type 2 diabetes (Y _{ ij } = 1) is assumed to be a linear function of the person's age (AGE _{ ij }) and race (RACE _{ ij }), survey year (YEAR _{ ij }), countylevel covariates Z _{ i }for the Covariate and Full models of county educational achievement at high school and college degree levels, county poverty rate and median annual household income adjusted for inflation, the number of fast food restaurants per 100,000 population, and the number of medical doctors and dentists per 1,000 population. All models include the county random intercept (δ _{ i }). The Geospatial and Full models also include the spatial component in the form of the averaged estimated county random intercept from the Naive and Covariate models, respectively, for neighboring counties (${\overline{\delta}}_{i}^{post}$).
An individual's age and race/ethnicity are potential predictors of a person's probability of having diabetes [11]. In addition, the county's general racial and ethnic composition is assumed to explain differences in diabetes prevalence beyond individual race/ethnicity and in conjunction with other sociodemographic covariates in the model. Modeling time as a fixed effect imposes the same temporal trend on all counties. This assumption may not hold because trends in risk may go up in some counties while staying flat or declining in others. Therefore, we also tested the models with random coefficients on time.
All models were implemented in the R statistical computing language, version 2.10.2 [17].
Data
The number of counties and sample sizes by survey year in the final dataset for persons aged 30 years and older.
Survey Year  Counties in dataset  Sample size in dataset  

Men  Women  Men  Women  
1996  2,602  2,768  39,803  58,075 
1997  2,698  2,811  43,750  63,420 
1998  2,844  2,948  47,680  70,066 
1999  2,834  2,959  50,852  75,095 
2000  2,907  3,009  58,127  86,386 
2001  2,955  3,016  66,065  97,325 
2002  2,994  3,050  78,982  119,248 
2003  3,007  3,045  84,819  130,777 
2004  3,009  3,058  97,198  154,224 
2005  3,018  3,064  115,878  186,306 
2006  2,747  2,782  111,998  182,346 
2007  2,762  2,792  134,325  225,950 
2008  2,733  2,765  130,997  218,611 
Total  3,140  3,140  1,060,474  1,667,829 
Summary statistics for individual and countylevel covariates.
Variable  Summary Statistic  19962004  20002008  

Men  Women  Men  Women  
Age (years)  Minimum  30  30  30  30 
Mean  50.2  52.3  50.6  52.5  
Maximum  99  99  99  99  
Individual Race/Ethnicity (percent)  White  76.6  76.5  73.7  74.2 
Afr. American/Black  8.4  10.0  8.6  9.9  
Asian  4.2  3.3  5.4  4.3  
AIAN  1.0  0.9  1.1  0.9  
Hispanic  9.7  9.3  11.2  10.6  
County Race/Ethnicity (percent)  Afr. American/Black  7.8^{1}  8.0^{1}  
Hispanic  4.5^{1}  5.2^{1}  
Education (percent)  High school degree  34.5^{2}  
Bachelor's degree  10.2^{2}  
Poverty (percent)  Minimum  1.7^{1}  2.6^{1}  
Mean  13.3^{1}  13.8^{1}  
Maximum  42.2^{1}  39.4^{1}  
Household income (thousand U.S. dollars, CPI adjusted)  Minimum  19.0^{1}  20.3^{1}  
Mean  45.6^{1}  43.4^{1}  
Maximum  114.0^{1}  107.9^{1}  
Fast food restaurants (number per 100,000 people)  Minimum  5.9^{1}  5.3^{1}  
Mean  66.4^{1}  71.3^{1}  
Maximum  715.6^{1}  1209^{1}  
Number of medical doctors per 1,000 population  Minimum  0^{1}  0^{1}  
Mean  27.6^{1}  27.7^{1}  
Maximum  369.9^{1}  370.0^{1}  
Number of dentists per 1,000 population  Minimum  0^{1}  0^{1}  
Mean  31.9^{1}  31.7^{1}  
Maximum  396.1^{1}  396.2^{1} 
The countylevel race/ethnicity composition in the form of the fraction of African Americans/Blacks and the fraction of Hispanics was obtained from the NCHS BridgedRace population estimates vintage 2008 for 19962008. The educational attainment variables were calculated as the fraction of the county population that completed high school and the fraction with bachelor's degrees using 2000 Census data. Median annual household income and the county poverty rate were obtained from the Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates for 19962008. The number of fast food restaurants per 100,000 population was derived from the Census Bureau's County Business Patterns for 19962007, the 2008 CBP data were released in July 2010 and could not be considered for this paper, using SIC code 5812 and NAICS code 72221. The transition from SIC to NAICS as well as NAICS revisions that took place in the time period 19992007 affected the comparability of the selected SIC and NAICS codes, and the bridge from SIC to NAICS is not fully closed To remove the structural breaks in the time series, the county medians were subtracted from both series, and missing fast food data were multiply imputed using a time series crosssectional model with auxiliary information and weak priors. The number of medical doctors and dentists was obtained from the Area Resource Files for 19962008. Unit and arealevel covariates and outcome variables were linked by unique county fivedigit FIPS codes [18, 19].
Creating a Validation Framework
To evaluate the validity of each model, a gold standard of the outcome variable is required. The gold standard serves as a benchmark judged to be the best available direct estimate for the small area domain, i.e., counties with sufficiently large sample sizes, which can be obtained by (i) choosing small domains with large sample sizes in a single survey year, (ii) pooling multiple survey years, or (iii) increasing domain size. We pooled the 20002008 BRFSS and calculated the direct agestandardized, sexspecific BRFSS estimates for Type 2 diabetes prevalence, taking poststratification weights into account and weighting each survey year equally. We then used as our gold standard the direct, agestandardized, sexspecific estimates for counties that had more than 900 observations (by sex) in both periods 19962004 and 20002008. The minimum sample size specified for the gold standard resulted in 121 counties for men and 196 counties for women, and we term these sets the validation sets.
The second step of our validation framework involves determining the minimum sample size needed to achieve sufficient correspondence with the gold standard. For this purpose, we sampled with replacement from the available validation set data to obtain 100, 50, and 10 observations per countyyear before fitting the model. That is, we systematically reduced the amount of data and information available from the counties with large sample sizes. For other applications, appropriate sample sizes can easily be specified. The sampling process was repeated 10 times at each sampling level so that the average effect of reduced sample size on model validity can be estimated reliably.
We then ran the 16 models for each sex on the 19962004 BRFSS and estimated county Type 2 diabetes prevalence rates for 2004. The results were compared against the gold standard for 2004 for the validation set using two metrics:

Concordance correlation coefficient (CCC), which measures agreement between two variables and correspondence within groups, i.e., how strongly do units within the same county resemble each other.

Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE) as a measure for the average squared difference between model estimates and the gold standard.
The bestperforming models for men and women, respectively, were the ones with the highest CCC and lowest RMSE. They were used in the last step to produce estimates of county Type 2 diabetes prevalence rates in 2008 using 20002008 BRFSS data.
Uncertainty Bounds
We used the bestperforming model and calculated empirical 95% credibility regions, obtained by drawing 1,000 samples of the model parameters from their conditional distributions and using them to generate 1,000 sets of individual probabilities of Type 2 diabetes for one person in each county and each agerace group (or age group if individual race was not in the model). We aggregated those to agestandardized and racespecific county prevalence rates using the 2000 US age distribution for the universe of 30+yearolds and the countyspecific race composition. From the 1,000 agestandardized and racespecific Type 2 diabetes prevalence rates, we used the empirical 2.5% and 97.5% values as the bounds for the credibility regions.
Results
Identifying the best model for estimating Type 2 diabetes prevalence in the validation framework
As illustrated in these figures, the best models for men according to our two metrics are the Full and Covariate models with an individual race covariate included and fixed effects on survey year for both men and women. Compared to the Naïve and Geospatial models, the inclusion of additional relevant covariates significantly improves model fit, especially at very small sample sizes of 10 per countyyear. Variations in CCC and RMSE also increase at smaller sample sizes for the Naïve and Geospatial models, illustrating the increasingly weakened ability to accurately estimate the outcome variable for small areas from pure measurement models. Although the Geospatial model still picks up some spatial pattern at small sample sizes compared to the Naïve model, overall CCCs drop from initial values of about 0.82 to between 0.57 and 0.16 at sample sizes of 50 and 10 per countyyear, while they remain, on average, at 0.7 for the Covariate and Full models  although individual race emerges as an important explanatory variable in the Naïve and Geospatial models. The superiority of all four models over the direct 2004 BRFSS estimate is dramatic. At sample sizes of 10 per countyyear, the CCC drops to near zero for the 2004 BRFSS, and even when the full sample is utilized, it does not exceed 0.43 for men. Adding meaningful covariates can be as effective as increasing the sample sizes five to tenfold in the Naïve and Geospatial models. This raises further questions regarding the accuracy of singleyear, direct survey estimates: Any increase in sample size helps improve precision, but including relevant covariates helps even more as sample sizes become very small.
Results for the Best Models
Men have, on average, slightly higher diabetes prevalence than women, although the highest levels are observed for women. The geographical distribution of high prevalence areas is notable and similar for men and women. Highrisk areas are concentrated along the Mexican border in Texas and the southern states of Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and Georgia, North and South Carolina, and southern parts of Virginia. These areas traditionally have higher shares of African Americans/Blacks and Hispanics, who have significant disparities in health status, in part because of lower income and education levels and other sociodemographic characteristics.
Parts of South Dakota, Arizona, and New Mexico that include Native American reservations also have comparatively high rates of diabetes. In contrast, prevalence is lowest in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. It is likely that the demographic makeup of the population coupled with lifestyle characteristics play a role in the low diabetes rates of 3.6% to 9%, compared with the national averages of 8.8% for men and 8.2% for women.
Summary of regression results for estimating Type 2 diabetes prevalence for men and women aged 30 and older for the full model.
Variable  Men  Women  

Estimate  St. error  Estimate  St. error  
Intercept  2.49  ***  0.09  2.36  ***  0.08 
Age group 3034  1.77  ***  0.03  1.52  ***  0.02 
Age group 3539  1.25  ***  0.02  1.12  ***  0.02 
Age group 4044  0.81  ***  0.02  0.75  ***  0.02 
Age group 4549  0.40  ***  0.02  0.39  ***  0.01 
Age group 5559  0.39  ***  0.01  0.35  ***  0.01 
Age group 6064  0.66  ***  0.01  0.59  ***  0.01 
Age group 6569  0.81  ***  0.01  0.75  ***  0.01 
Age group 7074  0.91  ***  0.01  0.80  ***  0.01 
Age group 75+  0.80  ***  0.01  0.68  ***  0.01 
African American/Blacks  0.69  ***  0.01  0.98  ***  0.01 
Asian ^{§}  0.41  ***  0.02  0.51  ***  0.02 
AIAN  0.65  ***  0.03  0.93  ***  0.02 
Hispanic  0.56  ***  0.02  0.75  ***  0.01 
Year 2001  0.08  ***  0.02  0.06  ***  0.02 
Year 2002  0.11  ***  0.02  0.11  ***  0.02 
Year 2003  0.17  ***  0.02  0.16  ***  0.02 
Year 2004  0.16  ***  0.02  0.15  ***  0.02 
Year 2005  0.23  ***  0.02  0.20  ***  0.02 
Year 2006  0.29  ***  0.02  0.23  ***  0.02 
Year 2007  0.32  ***  0.02  0.30  ***  0.02 
Year 2008  0.34  ***  0.02  0.29  ***  0.02 
Share of African American/Blacks  0.04  0.05  0.16  ***  0.04  
Share of Hispanics  0.32  ***  0.06  0.37  ***  0.04 
Share with High school degree  0.19  0.14  0.09  0.11  
Share with Bachelor's degree  2.14  ***  0.21  3.02  ***  0.18 
Median annual household income  0.00  *  0.00  0.00  0.00  
County poverty rate  0.01  ***  0.00  0.01  ***  0.00 
Fast food restaurants per 100,000 pop.  0.00  0.00  0.00  0.00  
Number of medical doctors per 1,000 pop.  0.00  ***  0.00  0.00  ***  0.00 
Number of dentists per 1,000 population  0.00  0.00  0.00  0.00  
Spatially averaged random intercept  1.58  ***  0.15  2.26  ***  0.13 
Standard deviation of random intercept  0.098  0.077  
Number of counties  3,140  3,140 
Uncertainty intervals
Discussion and Conclusions
We presented a novel and generalizable methodology for small area measurement and formal outofsample validation. Our validation step also provides guidance on the minimum sample size required for future data collection to ensure an accurate estimate of risk factors at the local area. We demonstrated that our methodology can yield more accurate estimates of important health outcomes and risk factors at the local level than singleyear, direct survey estimates or pure measurement models. Having validated and local estimates available can help draw attention to health determinants and stimulate research and interventions.
Limitations
We have used the BRFSS to develop county measurements of Type 2 diabetes prevalence by restricting the population universe to those aged 30 and older. The survey's limitations need to be taken into account when using or interpreting our results. The BRFSS is a telephone survey, and results may be subject to selfreporting bias, although for diabetes, this bias may vary by sex and age and is generally estimated to be relatively small, with estimates comparable to those from NHANES and NHIS [22]. The outcome variable also only measured diagnosed Type 2 diabetes and is therefore likely an underestimate of true Type 2 diabetes prevalence in the US 30+yearold population.
A second limitation of using the BRFSS arises from the survey's exclusive use of households with landline telephone service. The BRFSS excludes households with no telephone and cellphoneonly services. However, BRFSS data consistently provide valid and reliable data when compared to household surveys in the US [23, 24]. Moreover, the BRFSS is the only national source of local data in the US.
In the present study, we only tested systematically for spatial patterns for neighboring counties by averaging residual spatial patterns across adjacent counties, i.e., counties that have a common border. That is, we equated adjacency with being more similar than nonadjacent counties. This approach could be expanded in the future by taking topological and other barriers into account and also by considering similarity in feature space, such as sociodemographic characteristics, urbanicity, and other relevant factors.
Our framework hinges on the availability of large domains for which reasonably accurate gold standards can be computed. In our test case, the number of counties with more than 900 respondents in the pooled dataset was 121 (3.9% of all counties) for men and 196 (6.2% of all counties) for women. These are relatively small numbers and can be tested for robustness using different cutoffs for selecting the large domains. We further assume that there is no systematic relationship between domain size and prevalence, a reasonable assumption in our models because the validation counties represent a variety of urban and rural, sociodemographic, and other characteristics.
With respect to our modeling approach, future research will include the examination of models with different variancecovariance structure in the random effects; for example, the explicit modeling of spatial relationships in addition to or in lieu of the spatially pooled residual county random intercept. Current software limitations also limited our ability to incorporate the BRFSS's stratified sampling design. We did, however, use the poststratification weights reported in the BRFSS to calculate direct estimates. Finally, the CCC and RMSE are only two relevant metrics for judging the validity of the model estimates against the gold standard. Other options exist; for example, the ratio of RMSE over the mean for studying the relative size of estimation error.
Applicability to other settings and as a policy tool
In this paper, we have demonstrated how a validation environment can be created when a subset of small areas in a country have larger samples available. Such a validation environment allows the selection of a modeling strategy that optimally mixes the three approaches of pooling data across time, harnessing spatial patterns in the distribution of the outcome of interest, and adjusting for estimates for local area characteristics. The result is more accurate and precise small area measurements. We believe the approach that we have outlined can be applied in a straightforward manner to a full range of variables collected in surveys such as the BRFSS to generate annual measurements at the county level for a wide array of health behaviors and service utilization. These local and annual measurements can be an important stimulus to local public health decisionmaking and community engagement.
Another implication of the small area validation study demonstrated here is that samples as small as 50 observations per county and year can  with the appropriate analytical tools  yield quite robust measurements with acceptable uncertainty intervals. In contrast, the current practice used in many states and policy analyses of using small samples in statistical analyses can result in estimates with very low correlations with de facto gold standards based on large samples. Many counties in the United States have conducted their own BRFSS surveys. However, due to the considerable costs of such surveys, data collection is not carried out on a yearly basis. Our framework provides an affordable strategy for such data collection. Local health departments could contract with the BRFSS to ensure minimum sample sizes of approximately 50 respondents per year at a much lower additional cost.
The test case of Type 2 diabetes demonstrated that while the US is generally datarich, it also lacks accurate, timely information on status and trends in leading health risks. In a US context, our methodology could be used to produce local estimates of the leading risk factors for the US burden of disease that enable local and state health officials to prioritize and target highrisk counties while spending local, state, and federal funds more wisely on prevention and treatment programs. The generation of local health outcome and risk factor estimates over time will also allow the tracking of progress to first slow and then reverse trends in major risk factors. Being able to compare county efforts to reduce the prevalence of diabetes or other diseases on a dollarspentperpointreduction basis would create positive competition and allow identification of best practices.
In addition to health status and risk factor analysis in resourcerich countries such as the US, the framework can easily be applied to countries with large but locally insufficient health surveys and administrative databases. It can also be extended to obtain coverage estimates of important health interventions. For lowincome, resourcescarce countries, it is particularly attractive to use existing administrative and survey data to get more accurate local coverage estimates as it allows the identification of "hot spots" and more efficient and effective targeting of interventions. For example, our methodology could be used in resourcepoor countries with large Demographic Health Surveys to produce local estimates of health risk factors and diseases.
Our framework pushes open the door to more systematically, accurately, and efficiently use available data to track the status and effects of public policy interventions. It allows public health professionals to obtain accurate estimates of major health outcomes and risk factors and therefore to design and implement adequate preventive measures to reduce the burden of disease. Our methodology could be used to track progress and allocate resources to improve health at the local level.
Notes
Declarations
Acknowledgements
The study was partially supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the State of Washington. We thank the BRFSS coordinators for their assistance in providing the data.
Authors’ Affiliations
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