Using expert knowledge to incorporate uncertainty in cause-of-death assignments for modeling of cause-specific mortality

Ecology and Evolution
By: , and 



Implicit and explicit use of expert knowledge to inform ecological analyses is becoming increasingly common because it often represents the sole source of information in many circumstances. Thus, there is a need to develop statistical methods that explicitly incorporate expert knowledge, and can successfully leverage this information while properly accounting for associated uncertainty during analysis. Studies of cause-specific mortality provide an example of implicit use of expert knowledge when causes-of-death are uncertain and assigned based on the observer's knowledge of the most likely cause. To explicitly incorporate this use of expert knowledge and the associated uncertainty, we developed a statistical model for estimating cause-specific mortality using a data augmentation approach within a Bayesian hierarchical framework. Specifically, for each mortality event, we elicited the observer's belief of cause-of-death by having them specify the probability that the death was due to each potential cause. These probabilities were then used as prior predictive values within our framework. This hierarchical framework permitted a simple and rigorous estimation method that was easily modified to include covariate effects and regularizing terms. Although applied to survival analysis, this method can be extended to any event-time analysis with multiple event types, for which there is uncertainty regarding the true outcome. We conducted simulations to determine how our framework compared to traditional approaches that use expert knowledge implicitly and assume that cause-of-death is specified accurately. Simulation results supported the inclusion of observer uncertainty in cause-of-death assignment in modeling of cause-specific mortality to improve model performance and inference. Finally, we applied the statistical model we developed and a traditional method to cause-specific survival data for white-tailed deer, and compared results. We demonstrate that model selection results changed between the two approaches, and incorporating observer knowledge in cause-of-death increased the variability associated with parameter estimates when compared to the traditional approach. These differences between the two approaches can impact reported results, and therefore, it is critical to explicitly incorporate expert knowledge in statistical methods to ensure rigorous inference.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Using expert knowledge to incorporate uncertainty in cause-of-death assignments for modeling of cause-specific mortality
Series title Ecology and Evolution
DOI 10.1002/ece3.3701
Volume 8
Issue 1
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) National Wildlife Health Center
Description 12 p.
First page 509
Last page 520
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