Inverse reinforcement learning for intelligent mechanical ventilation and sedative dosing in intensive care units

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2019 Apr 9;19(Suppl 2):57. doi: 10.1186/s12911-019-0763-6.


Background: Reinforcement learning (RL) provides a promising technique to solve complex sequential decision making problems in health care domains. To ensure such applications, an explicit reward function encoding domain knowledge should be specified beforehand to indicate the goal of tasks. However, there is usually no explicit information regarding the reward function in medical records. It is then necessary to consider an approach whereby the reward function can be learned from a set of presumably optimal treatment trajectories using retrospective real medical data. This paper applies inverse RL in inferring the reward functions that clinicians have in mind during their decisions on weaning of mechanical ventilation and sedative dosing in Intensive Care Units (ICUs).

Methods: We model the decision making problem as a Markov Decision Process, and use a batch RL method, Fitted Q Iterations with Gradient Boosting Decision Tree, to learn a suitable ventilator weaning policy from real trajectories in retrospective ICU data. A Bayesian inverse RL method is then applied to infer the latent reward functions in terms of weights in trading off various aspects of evaluation criterion. We then evaluate how the policy learned using the Bayesian inverse RL method matches the policy given by clinicians, as compared to other policies learned with fixed reward functions.

Results: Results show that the inverse RL method is capable of extracting meaningful indicators for recommending extubation readiness and sedative dosage, indicating that clinicians pay more attention to patients' physiological stability (e.g., heart rate and respiration rate), rather than oxygenation criteria (FiO2, PEEP and SpO2) which is supported by previous RL methods. Moreover, by discovering the optimal weights, new effective treatment protocols can be suggested.

Conclusions: Inverse RL is an effective approach to discovering clinicians' underlying reward functions for designing better treatment protocols in the ventilation weaning and sedative dosing in future ICUs.

Keywords: Intensive care units; Inverse learning; Mechanical ventilation; Reinforcement learning; Sedative dosing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Clinical Decision-Making
  • Clinical Protocols
  • Critical Care*
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / administration & dosage*
  • Machine Learning*
  • Markov Chains
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Respiration, Artificial*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives