A generalized framework to predict continuous scores from medical ordinal labels

Many variables of interest in clinical medicine, like disease severity, are recorded using discrete ordinal categories such as normal/mild/moderate/severe. These labels are used to train and evaluate disease severity prediction models. However, ordinal categories represent a simplification of an underlying continuous severity spectrum. Using continuous scores instead of ordinal categories is more sensitive to detecting small changes in disease severity over time. Here, we present a generalized framework that accurately predicts continuously valued variables using only discrete ordinal labels during model development. We found that for three clinical prediction tasks, models that take the ordinal relationship of the training labels into account outperformed conventional multi-class classification models. Particularly the continuous scores generated by ordinal classification and regression models showed a significantly higher correlation with expert rankings of disease severity and lower mean squared errors compared to the multi-class classification models. Furthermore, the use of MC dropout significantly improved the ability of all evaluated deep learning approaches to predict continuously valued scores that truthfully reflect the underlying continuous target variable. We showed that accurate continuously valued predictions can be generated even if the model development only involves discrete ordinal labels. The novel framework has been validated on three different clinical prediction tasks and has proven to bridge the gap between discrete ordinal labels and the underlying continuously valued variables.

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