Improving clinical translation of machine learning approaches through clinician-tailored visual displays of black box algorithms: Development and validation

Shannon Wongvibulsin, Katherine C. Wu, Scott L. Zeger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Despite the promise of machine learning (ML) to inform individualized medical care, the clinical utility of ML in medicine has been limited by the minimal interpretability and black box nature of these algorithms. Objective: The study aimed to demonstrate a general and simple framework for generating clinically relevant and interpretable visualizations of black box predictions to aid in the clinical translation of ML. Methods: To obtain improved transparency of ML, simplified models and visual displays can be generated using common methods from clinical practice such as decision trees and effect plots. We illustrated the approach based on postprocessing of ML predictions, in this case random forest predictions, and applied the method to data from the Left Ventricular (LV) Structural Predictors of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) Registry for individualized risk prediction of SCD, a leading cause of death. Results: With the LV Structural Predictors of SCD Registry data, SCD risk predictions are obtained from a random forest algorithm that identifies the most important predictors, nonlinearities, and interactions among a large number of variables while naturally accounting for missing data. The black box predictions are postprocessed using classification and regression trees into a clinically relevant and interpretable visualization. The method also quantifies the relative importance of an individual or a combination of predictors. Several risk factors (heart failure hospitalization, cardiac magnetic resonance imaging indices, and serum concentration of systemic inflammation) can be clearly visualized as branch points of a decision tree to discriminate between low-, intermediate-, and high-risk patients. Conclusions: Through a clinically important example, we illustrate a general and simple approach to increase the clinical translation of ML through clinician-tailored visual displays of results from black box algorithms. We illustrate this general model-agnostic framework by applying it to SCD risk prediction. Although we illustrate the methods using SCD prediction with random forest, the methods presented are applicable more broadly to improving the clinical translation of ML, regardless of the specific ML algorithm or clinical application. As any trained predictive model can be summarized in this manner to a prespecified level of precision, we encourage the use of simplified visual displays as an adjunct to the complex predictive model. Overall, this framework can allow clinicians to peek inside the black box and develop a deeper understanding of the most important features from a model to gain trust in the predictions and confidence in applying them to clinical care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere15791
JournalJMIR Medical Informatics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2020


  • Clinical translation
  • Interpretability
  • Machine learning
  • Prediction models
  • Visualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Health Information Management


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