Causes of outcome learning: A causal inference-inspired machine learning approach to disentangling common combinations of potential causes of a health outcome

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Nearly all diseases can be caused by different combinations of exposures. Yet, most epidemiological studies focus on the causal effect of a single exposure on an outcome. We present the Causes of Outcome Learning (CoOL) approach, which seeks to identify combinations of exposures (which can be interpreted causally if all causal assumptions are met) that could be responsible for an increased risk of a health outcome in population subgroups. The approach allows for exposures acting alone and in synergy with others. It involves (a) a precomputational phase that proposes a causal model; (b) a computational phase with three steps, namely (i) analytically fitting a non-negative additive model, (ii) decomposing risk contributions, and (iii) clustering individuals based on the risk contributions into sub-groups based on the predefined causal model; and (c) a post-computational phase on hypothesis development and validation by triangulation on new data before eventually updating the causal model. The computational phase uses a tailored neural network for the non-negative additive model and Layer-wise Relevance Propagation for the risk decomposition through this model. We demonstrate the approach on simulated and real-life data using the R package 'CoOL'. The presentation is focused on binary exposures and outcomes but can be extended to other measurement types. This approach encourages and enables epidemiologists to identify combinations of pre-outcome exposures as potential causes of the health outcome of interest. Expanding our ability to discover complex causes could eventually result in more effective, targeted, and informed interventions prioritized for their public health impact.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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