There is an acknowledged need for better information to guide resource allocation and service planning in the health services. Despite the recognition of the important role of socioeconomic factors, difficulties with the appropriate presentation of daya have so far proved insuperable. Social area analysis (SAA), which is a generic name for a number of methods employing census and other data to classify small areas into similar socioeconomic groups, is an approach which quantifies data in a useful fashion and has important applications in medical, epidemiological and health services research. Most previous British exercises in SAA have been in the field of town planning. The potentialities of the approach for community medicine are evaluated, by the use of information from two existing studies. This is shown to discriminate more effectively than does existing health information between hypotheses concerning geographical variations in mortality, and it provides adequate explanations for urban area differentials in infant mortality, the uptake of vaccination, and the incidence of infectious disease. Specific applications of SAA in health planning and research are discussed.
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