Biased Algorithms Affect Healthcare for Millions
Algorithm-based healthcare is not unbiased and can lead to
substantial inequality in patient healthcare, according to a
study published online October 24 in Science.
"We show that a widely used algorithm, typical of this industry-wide approach and affecting millions of patients, exhibits significant racial bias," write Ziad Obermeyer, MD, from the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues.
The scale of impact of this bias is large; bias affects healthcare decisions for tens of millions of patients every year, Obermeyer said in an interview with Medscape Medical News.
Most healthcare systems use high-risk care management programs to provide extra resources to patients with complex health needs, Obermeyer explained. These programs aim to reduce emerging health problems and their associated extra healthcare costs. However, providing this extra help is expensive, he said, so health systems use algorithms to identify the patients who most need this help.
But there is mounting concern that, because humans create the algorithm inputs and design, these machine-learning programs are not unbiased. Rather, the algorithms may contain racial and gender biases of the people who develop them.
To find out if that was happening in practice, Obermeyer and colleagues tested a commercially available algorithm called Impact Pro, from Optum, on a large patient dataset at an academic hospital. Their main sample comprised 6079 patients who self-identified as black and 43,539 patients who self-identified as white. Overall, 71.2% of the sample were commercially insured, and 28.8% were enrolled in Medicare.
The researchers followed the patients over 11,929 and 88,080 patient- years, respectively, and obtained algorithmic risk scores for each patient-year. They found that, at a given risk score, black patients were considerably sicker than white patients, as demonstrated by signs of uncontrolled illnesses.
Removing the bias in this algorithm would more than double the number of black patients who would be eligible for a program that provides extra medical help to the highest-risk patients, said Obermeyer - raising it from 17.7% to 46.5% in this particular health system. Cost as Input Measure
Obermeyer explained that the issue of this bias arises not necessarily in the algorithm itself but in the problem that the algorithm aims to solve.
Although identifying patients who need the most care seems straightforward, companies must choose a variable in the dataset that will accomplish this, he said.
Cost is typically an easy variable to choose in this case, Obermeyer explained, especially because it is frequently used as a proxy for health in some settings.
However, that proxy is not always reasonable, such as when comparing black patients with white patients. Black patients tend to generate fewer costs at the same level of health, he said. Inequalities in access to healthcare significantly contribute to this - for example, it can be much harder to get to a doctor's appointment if one can't pay for transportation or can't take the day off from work.
Courtesy : Algorithms