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Machine learning to allocate palliative care consultations during cancer treatment


Purpose — For patients with advanced cancer, early consultations with palliative care (PC) specialists reduce costs, improve quality of life, and prolong survival. However, capacity limitations prevent all patients from receiving PC shortly after diagnosis. We evaluated whether a prognostic machine learning system could promote early PC, given existing capacity.

Methods — Using population-level administrative data in Ontario, Canada, we assembled a cohort of patients with incurable cancer who received palliative-intent systemic therapy between July 1, 2014, and December 30, 2019. We developed a machine learning system that predicted death within 1 year of each treatment using demographics, cancer characteristics, treatments, symptoms, laboratory values, and history of acute care admissions. We trained the system in patients who started treatment before July 1, 2017, and evaluated the potential impact of the system on PC in subsequent patients.

Results — Among 560,210 treatments received by 54,628 patients, death occurred within 1 year of 45.2% of treatments. The machine learning system recommended the same number of PC consultations observed with usual care at the 60.0% 1-year risk of death, with a first-alarm positive predictive value of 69.7% and an outcome-level sensitivity of 74.9%. Compared with usual care, system-guided care could increase early PC by 8.5% overall (95% CI, 7.5 to 9.5; P < .001) and by 15.3% (95% CI, 13.9 to 16.6; P < .001) among patients who live 6 months beyond their first treatment, without requiring more PC consultations in total or substantially increasing PC among patients with a prognosis exceeding 2 years.

Conclusion — Prognostic machine learning systems could increase early PC despite existing resource constraints. These results demonstrate an urgent need to deploy and evaluate prognostic systems in real-time clinical practice to increase access to early PC.



He JC, Moffat GT, Podolsky S, Khan F, Liu N, Taback N, Gallinger S, Hannon B, Krzyzanowska MK, Ghassemi M, Chan KKW, Grant RC. J Clin Oncol. 2024; Feb 15 [Epub ahead of print].

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