Background: In the U.S. small-area health services research studies are often based on the hospital service areas (HSAs) defined by the Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare project. These areas are based on the geographic origins of Medicare Part A hospital patients, the great majority of whom are seniors. It is reasonable to question whether the geographic system so defined is appropriate for health services research for all ages, particularly for children, who have a very different system of healthcare financing and provision in the U.S. Methods: This article assesses the need for a unique system of HSAs to support pediatric small-area analyses. It is a cross-sectional analysis of California hospital discharges for two age groups - non-newborns 0-17 years old, and seniors. The measure of interest was index of localization, which is the percentage of HSA residents hospitalized in their home HSA. Indices were computed separately for each age group, and index agreement was assessed for 219 of the state's HSAs. We examined the effect of local pediatric inpatient volume and pediatric inpatient resources on the divergence of the age group indices. We also created a new system of HSAs based solely on pediatric patient origins, and visually compared maps of the traditional and the new system. Results: The mean localization index for pediatric discharges was 20 percentage points lower than for Medicare cases, indicating a poorer fit of the traditional geographic system for children. The volume of pediatric cases did not appear to be associated with the magnitude of index divergence between the two age groups. Pediatric medical and surgical case subgroups gave very similar results, and both groups differed substantially from seniors. Location of children's hospitals and local pediatric bed supply were associated with Medicare-pediatric divergence. There was little visual correspondence between the maps of traditional and pediatric-specific HSAs. Conclusion: Children and seniors have significantly different geographic patterns of hospitalization in California. Medicare-based HSAs may not be appropriate for all age groups and service types throughout the U.S.
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