Cluster detection is an important part of spatial epidemiology because it can help identifying environmental factors associated with disease and thus guide investigation of the aetiology of diseases. In this article we study three methods suitable for detecting local spatial clusters: (1) a spatial scan statistic (SaTScan), (2) generalized additive models (GAM) and (3) Bayesian disease mapping (BYM). We conducted a simulation study to compare the methods. Seven geographic clusters with different shapes were initially chosen as high-risk areas. Different scenarios for the magnitude of the relative risk of these areas as compared to the normal risk areas were considered. For each scenario the performance of the methods were assessed in terms of the sensitivity, specificity, and percentage correctly classified for each cluster.
The performance depends on the relative risk, but all methods are in general suitable for identifying clusters with a relative risk larger than 1.5. However, it is difficult to detect clusters with lower relative risks. The GAM approach had the highest sensitivity, but relatively low specificity leading to an overestimation of the cluster area. Both the BYM and the SaTScan methods work well. Clusters with irregular shapes are more difficult to detect than more circular clusters.
Based on our simulations we conclude that the methods differ in their ability to detect spatial clusters. Different aspects should be considered for appropriate choice of method such as size and shape of the assumed spatial clusters and the relative importance of sensitivity and specificity. In general, the BYM method seems preferable for local cluster detection with relatively high relative risks whereas the SaTScan method appears preferable for lower relative risks. The GAM method needs to be tuned (using cross-validation) to get satisfactory results.