Many morbid-mortality atlases and small-area studies have been carried out over the last decade. However, the methods used to draw up such research, the interpretation of results and the conclusions published are often inaccurate. Often, the proliferation of this practice has led to inefficient decision-making, implementation of inappropriate health policies and negative impact on the advancement of scientific knowledge. This paper reviews the most frequent errors in the design, analysis and interpretation of small-area epidemiological studies and proposes a diagnostic evaluation test that should enable the scientific quality of published papers to be ascertained. Nine common mistakes in disease mapping methods are discussed. From this framework, and following the theory of diagnostic evaluation, a standardised test to evaluate the scientific quality of a small-area epidemiology study has been developed. Optimal quality is achieved with the maximum score (16 points), average with a score between 8 and 15 points, and low with a score of 7 or below. A systematic evaluation of scientific papers, together with an enhanced quality in future research, will contribute towards increased efficacy in epidemiological surveillance and in health planning based on the spatio-temporal analysis of ecological information.
small-area, ecological design, disease mapping, incidence, mortality, morbidity, geographical information systems, Bayesian model.