Deep Learning Applied to Chest X-Rays: Exploiting and Preventing Shortcuts

Sarah Jabbour, David Fouhey, Ella Kazerooni, Michael W. Sjoding, Jenna Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


While deep learning has shown promise in improving the automated diagnosis of disease based on chest X-rays, deep networks may exhibit undesirable behavior related to shortcuts. This paper studies the case of spurious class skew in which patients with a particular attribute are spuriously more likely to have the outcome of interest. For instance, clinical protocols might lead to a dataset in which patients with pacemakers are disproportionately likely to have congestive heart failure. This skew can lead to models that take shortcuts by heavily relying on the biased attribute. We explore this problem across a number of attributes in the context of diagnosing the cause of acute hypoxemic respiratory failure. Applied to chest X-rays, we show that i) deep nets can accurately identify many patient attributes including sex (AUROC = 0.96) and age (AUROC ≥ 0.90), ii) they tend to exploit correlations between such attributes and the outcome label when learning to predict a diagnosis, leading to poor performance when such correlations do not hold in the test population (e.g., everyone in the test set is male), and iii) a simple transfer learning approach is surprisingly effective at preventing the shortcut and promoting good generalization performance. On the task of diagnosing congestive heart failure based on a set of chest X-rays skewed towards older patients (age ≥ 63), the proposed approach improves generalization over standard training from 0.66 (95% CI: 0.54-0.77) to 0.84 (95% CI: 0.73-0.92) AUROC. While simple, the proposed approach has the potential to improve the performance of models across populations by encouraging reliance on clinically relevant manifestations of disease, i.e., those that a clinician would use to make a diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)750-782
Number of pages33
JournalProceedings of Machine Learning Research
StatePublished - 2020
Event5th Machine Learning for Healthcare Conference, MLHC 2020 - Virtual, Online
Duration: Aug 7 2020Aug 8 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software
  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Statistics and Probability


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