The path toward equal performance in medical machine learning

Elsevier, Patterns, Volume 4, Issue 7, 2023, 100790, ISSN 2666-3899,
Eike Petersen, Sune Holm, Melanie Ganz, Aasa Feragen

To ensure equitable quality of care, differences in machine learning model performance between patient groups must be addressed. Here, we argue that two separate mechanisms can cause performance differences between groups. First, model performance may be worse than theoretically achievable in a given group. This can occur due to a combination of group underrepresentation, modeling choices, and the characteristics of the prediction task at hand. We examine scenarios in which underrepresentation leads to underperformance, scenarios in which it does not, and the differences between them. Second, the optimal achievable performance may also differ between groups due to differences in the intrinsic difficulty of the prediction task. We discuss several possible causes of such differences in task difficulty. In addition, challenges such as label biases and selection biases may confound both learning and performance evaluation. We highlight consequences for the path toward equal performance, and we emphasize that leveling up model performance may require gathering not only more data from underperforming groups but also better data. Throughout, we ground our discussion in real-world medical phenomena and case studies while also referencing relevant statistical theory.