Using funnel plots in public health surveillance

Popul Health Metr. 2011 Nov 10;9(1):58. doi: 10.1186/1478-7954-9-58.


Background: Public health surveillance is often concerned with the analysis of health outcomes over small areas. Funnel plots have been proposed as a useful tool for assessing and visualizing surveillance data, but their full utility has not been appreciated (for example, in the incorporation and interpretation of risk factors).

Methods: We investigate a way to simultaneously focus funnel plot analyses on direct policy implications while visually incorporating model fit and the effects of risk factors. Health survey data representing modifiable and nonmodifiable risk factors are used in an analysis of 2007 small area motor vehicle mortality rates in Alberta, Canada.

Results: Small area variations in motor vehicle mortality in Alberta were well explained by the suite of modifiable and nonmodifiable risk factors. Funnel plots of raw rates and of risk adjusted rates lead to different conclusions; the analysis process highlights opportunities for intervention as risk factors are incorporated into the model. Maps based on funnel plot methods identify areas worthy of further investigation.

Conclusions: Funnel plots provide a useful tool to explore small area data and to routinely incorporate covariate relationships in surveillance analyses. The exploratory process has at each step a direct and useful policy-related result. Dealing thoughtfully with statistical overdispersion is a cornerstone to fully understanding funnel plots.