Linda Nordling at Nature: “When data scientists in Chicago, Illinois, set out to test whether a machine-learning algorithm could predict how long people would stay in hospital, they thought that they were doing everyone a favour. Keeping people in hospital is expensive, and if managers knew which patients were most likely to be eligible for discharge, they could move them to the top of doctors’ priority lists to avoid unnecessary delays. It would be a win–win situation: the hospital would save money and people could leave as soon as possible.
Starting their work at the end of 2017, the scientists trained their algorithm on patient data from the University of Chicago academic hospital system. Taking data from the previous three years, they crunched the numbers to see what combination of factors best predicted length of stay. At first they only looked at clinical data. But when they expanded their analysis to other patient information, they discovered that one of the best predictors for length of stay was the person’s postal code. This was puzzling. What did the duration of a person’s stay in hospital have to do with where they lived?
As the researchers dug deeper, they became increasingly concerned. The postal codes that correlated to longer hospital stays were in poor and predominantly African American neighbourhoods. People from these areas stayed in hospitals longer than did those from more affluent, predominantly white areas. The reason for this disparity evaded the team. Perhaps people from the poorer areas were admitted with more severe conditions. Or perhaps they were less likely to be prescribed the drugs they needed.
The finding threw up an ethical conundrum. If optimizing hospital resources was the sole aim of their programme, people’s postal codes would clearly be a powerful predictor for length of hospital stay. But using them would, in practice, divert hospital resources away from poor, black people towards wealthy white people, exacerbating existing biases in the system.
“The initial goal was efficiency, which in isolation is a worthy goal,” says Marshall Chin, who studies health-care ethics at University of Chicago Medicine and was one of the scientists who worked on the project. But fairness is also important, he says, and this was not explicitly considered in the algorithm’s design….(More)”.