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Open Access Research article

Individual-level space-time analyses of emergency department data using generalized additive modeling

Verónica M Vieira12*, Janice M Weinberg3 and Thomas F Webster2

  • * Corresponding author: Verónica M Vieira

Author Affiliations

1 Program in Public Health, University of California, Irvine, CA, 92697, USA

2 Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health, Talbot 4W, 715 Albany Street, Boston, MA, 02118, USA

3 Department of Biostatistics, Boston University School of Public Health, Crosstown, 801 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA, 02118, USA

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:687  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-687

Published: 22 August 2012



Although daily emergency department (ED) data is a source of information that often includes residence, its potential for space-time analyses at the individual level has not been fully explored. We propose that ED data collected for surveillance purposes can also be used to inform spatial and temporal patterns of disease using generalized additive models (GAMs). This paper describes the methods for adapting GAMs so they can be applied to ED data.


GAMs are an effective approach for modeling spatial and temporal distributions of point-wise data, producing smoothed surfaces of continuous risk while adjusting for confounders. In addition to disease mapping, the method allows for global and pointwise hypothesis testing and selection of statistically optimum degree of smoothing using standard statistical software. We applied a two-dimensional GAM for location to ED data of overlapping calendar time using a locally-weighted regression smoother. To illustrate our methods, we investigated the association between participants’ address and the risk of gastrointestinal illness in Cape Cod, Massachusetts over time.


The GAM space-time analyses simultaneously smooth in units of distance and time by using the optimum degree of smoothing to create data frames of overlapping time periods and then spatially analyzing each data frame. When resulting maps are viewed in series, each data frame contributes a movie frame, allowing us to visualize changes in magnitude, geographic size, and location of elevated risk smoothed over space and time. In our example data, we observed an underlying geographic pattern of gastrointestinal illness with risks consistently higher in the eastern part of our study area over time and intermittent variations of increased risk during brief periods.


Spatial-temporal analysis of emergency department data with GAMs can be used to map underlying disease risk at the individual-level and view changes in geographic patterns of disease over time while accounting for multiple confounders. Despite the advantages of GAMs, analyses should be considered exploratory in nature. It is possible that even with a conservative cutoff for statistical significance, results of hypothesis testing may be due to chance. This paper illustrates that GAMs can be adapted to measure geographic trends in public health over time using ED data.

Geographic information systems; Administrative data; Hospitals