BACKGROUND: Many public health and epidemiological studies have found differences between populations (e.g. maternal countries of birth) in average values of a health indicator (e.g. mean offspring birthweight). However, the approach based solely on population-level averages compromises our understanding of variability in individuals' health around the averages. If this variability is high, the exclusive study of averages may give misleading information. This idea is relevant when investigating country of birth differences in health.
METHODS AND RESULTS: To exemplify this concept, we use information from the Swedish Medical Birth Register (2002-2010) and apply multilevel regression analysis of birthweight, with babies (n = 811,329) at the first, mothers (n = 571,876) at the second, and maternal countries of birth (n = 109) at the third level. We disentangle offspring, maternal and maternal country of birth components of the total offspring heterogeneity in birthweight for babies born within the normal timespan (37-42 weeks). We found that of such birthweight variation about 50% was at the baby level, 47% at the maternal level and only 3% at the maternal countries of birth level.
CONCLUSION: In spite of seemingly large differences in average birthweight among maternal countries of birth (range 3290-3677 g), knowledge of the maternal country of birth does not provide accurate information for ascertaining individual offspring birthweight because of the high inter-offspring heterogeneity around country averages. Our study exemplifies the need for a better understanding of individual health diversity for which group averages may provide insufficient and even misleading information. The analytical approach we outline is therefore relevant to investigations of country of birth (and ethnic) differences in health in general.
2015. Vol. 10, no 5