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Sunday, April 19, 2020

On the ethics of algorithmic decision-making in healthcare

Grote T, Berens P
Journal of Medical Ethics 


In recent years, a plethora of high-profile scientific publications has been reporting about machine learning algorithms outperforming clinicians in medical diagnosis or treatment recommendations. This has spiked interest in deploying relevant algorithms with the aim of enhancing decision-making in healthcare. In this paper, we argue that instead of straightforwardly enhancing the decision-making capabilities of clinicians and healthcare institutions, deploying machines learning algorithms entails trade-offs at the epistemic and the normative level. Whereas involving machine learning might improve the accuracy of medical diagnosis, it comes at the expense of opacity when trying to assess the reliability of given diagnosis. Drawing on literature in social epistemology and moral responsibility, we argue that the uncertainty in question potentially undermines the epistemic authority of clinicians. Furthermore, we elucidate potential pitfalls of involving machine learning in healthcare with respect to paternalism, moral responsibility and fairness. At last, we discuss how the deployment of machine learning algorithms might shift the evidentiary norms of medical diagnosis. In this regard, we hope to lay the grounds for further ethical reflection of the opportunities and pitfalls of machine learning for enhancing decision-making in healthcare.

From the Conclusion

In this paper, we aimed at examining which opportunities and pitfalls machine learning potentially provides to enhance of medical decision-making on epistemic and ethical grounds. As should have become clear, enhancing medical decision-making by deferring to machine learning algorithms requires trade-offs at different levels. Clinicians, or their respective healthcare institutions, are facing a dilemma: while there is plenty of evidence of machine learning algorithms outsmarting their human counterparts, their deployment comes at the costs of high degrees of uncertainty. On epistemic grounds, relevant uncertainty promotes risk-averse decision-making among clinicians, which then might lead to impoverished medical diagnosis. From an ethical perspective, deferring to machine learning algorithms blurs the attribution of accountability and imposes health risks to patients. Furthermore, the deployment of machine learning might also foster a shift of norms within healthcare. It needs to be pointed out, however, that none of the issues we discussed presents a knockout argument against deploying machine learning in medicine, and our article is not intended this way at all. On the contrary, we are convinced that machine learning provides plenty of opportunities to enhance decision-making in medicine.

The article is here.