Compared to clinical experts, artificial intelligence (AI)-based diagnostic methods have demonstrated similar or better accuracy in various areas of diagnostic imaging. As a result, AI-based decision-support tools are expected to facilitate access to expert-level image-based diagnostic accuracy1,2,3,4,5,6. To ensure the safety and effectiveness of AI-enabled medical devices, certain performance quality standards must be met. For example, regulations governing cancer diagnosis emphasize high sensitivity due to the greater potential harm of overlooking a malignancy compared to misclassifying a benign lesion as malignant. However, evaluating a diagnostic test based solely on sensitivity is inadequate as low specificity also poses risks, such as invasive procedures, patient anxiety and waste of healthcare resources. The trade-off between these harms differs depending on the type of cancer and is further influenced by human preferences, which refers to the personal judgments of physicians and patients regarding the relative value of potential outcomes within a specific clinical scenario. These preferences are not usually taken into account in AI training, but at best are implemented at more application-level logic through thresholds and cost-sensitive learning7,8,9.

Diagnostic procedures can be viewed as a sequential decision-making task in which a management decision is based on the likelihood of a potentially harmful diagnosis like cancer. In the field of diagnostic imaging, we can think of this as a Markov decision process where the initial states are image attributes, the possible actions are management strategies and the rewards are determined by the relative benefits and harms of diagnostic errors and appropriate and inappropriate management decisions. In this way, we can use reinforcement learning to find a strategy that maximizes cumulative rewards while considering clinician and patient preferences10,11.

To test whether reinforcement learning could be useful to adapt AI predictions to human preferences, we used the example of skin cancer diagnosis. This domain is challenging for AI because it involves imbalanced datasets dominated by benign conditions and represents a multiclass problem involving more than one type of cancer with different trade-offs12. Although less common than other skin cancers, melanoma has the highest mortality rate, and overlooking melanoma should carry a higher penalty than overlooking other types of skin cancer13.

First, we trained a supervised learning model (SL model) using a publicly available training set composed of 10,015 images including two types of skin cancer, melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, a precancerous condition (actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma) and four common benign conditions (nevi, benign keratinocytic lesions, dermatofibroma and vascular lesions)14. The model was trained to minimize a class-frequency weighted cross-entropy loss, with the goal to maximize average recall. The output of the model predicted multiclass probabilities for each of the seven diagnoses. The external validity of this model was tested on an independent test set of 1,511 images, where the model achieved an average accuracy of 77.8% with a sensitivity of 61.4% for melanoma (95% CI: 54.1–68.7%) and 79.6% for basal cell carcinoma (95% CI: 71.4–87.8%). This result is comparable to the results of above-average models obtained in an international competition using the same benchmark test set, and better than the results obtained by experts3. Although the model has acceptable multiclass accuracy, the low sensitivity for melanoma limits its use in clinical practice.

Next, we set up a reinforcement learning model (RL model) with deep Q-learning using a one-dimensional vector combining the multiclass probabilities and the feature vector of the SL model as the initial state11. We used a dermatologist-generated reward table in which rewards and penalties for correct and incorrect diagnoses depend on the type of skin cancer (Fig. 1a). Using the same training and test sets, the RL model achieved a significantly higher sensitivity for melanoma (79.5%, 95% CI: 73.5–85.6%, P < 0.001) and for basal cell carcinoma (87.1%, 95% CI: 80.3–93.9%, P < 0.001) compared to the baseline SL model while maintaining a high average accuracy of 79.2% (Fig. 1b,c). This increase in sensitivity for melanoma was mainly driven by reclassifying melanomas diagnosed as nevi by the SL model (Extended Data Fig. 1a).

Fig. 1: Comparison of models and reader study results.
figure 1

a, Expert-generated reward table used to train the RL model; rows, ground truth; columns, predictions. b,c, Confusion matrix of the SL model (b) and the RL model (c) using the same test set (n = 1511). Rows, ground truth; columns, predictions. The proportions are normalized by the row-sums (MEL: n = 171; BCC: n = 93; AKIEC: n = 43; BKL: n = 217; NV: n = 908; DF: n = 44; VASC: n = 35). d, Boxplot of difference in entropy of paired test set predictions (n = 1,511) of the SL model and the RL model. Black line, median; boxes, 25th–75th percentiles; whiskers, minimum and maximum values, P < 0.0001 (Wilcoxon test). e,f, Results of the reader study comparing sensitivities (e) and frequencies of optimal management decisions (f) of 89 dermatologists by diagnosis without AI support (−AI), with support by the SL model (+SL) and with support by the RL model (+RL). Optimal managements: ‘excision’ for melanomas and basal cell carcinomas; ‘local therapy’ for actinic keratoses/intraepidermal carcinoma; and ‘dismiss’ for nevi, benign keratinocytic lesions, dermatofibroma and vascular lesions. Bars, means; whiskers, standard error. Sample sizes: MEL(−AI): n = 89; MEL(+SL): n = 78; MEL(+RL): n = 81; BCC(−AI): n = 89; BCC(+SL): n = 63; BCC(+RL): n = 68; AKIEC(−AI): n = 89; AKIEC(+SL): n = 60; AKIEC(+RL): n = 72; NV(−AI): n = 89; NV(+SL): n = 88; NV(+RL): n = 85; BKL(−AI): n = 89; BKL(+SL): n = 65; BKL(+RL): n = 76; DF(−AI): n = 89; DF(+SL): n = 71; DF(+RL): n = 61; VASC(−AI): n = 89, VASC(+SL): n = 67; VASC(+RL): n = 65. Abbreviations: MEL, melanoma; BCC, basal cell carcinoma; AKIEC, actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma; BKL, benign keratinocytic lesion; NV, melanocytic nevus; DF, dermatofibroma; VASC, vascular lesion.

We also calculated the Shannon entropy of AI predictions and used it as a marker of model uncertainty. We found that the RL model increased the entropy of predictions in comparison to the SL model (median: 0.30 bits, 25th–75th percentile: 0.04–0.97 bits versus median: 1.46 bits, 25th–75th percentile: 0.75–1.80 bits, P < 0.001; Fig. 1d). While this increase in uncertainty has no decremental effect on average accuracy, it reduces the overconfidence of AI predictions when the diagnosis is incorrect (median: 1.13 bits, 25th–75th percentile: 0.82–1.49 bits for 298 cases incorrectly classified by the SL model versus 1.81 bits, 25th–75th percentile: 0.90–2.32 bits for 333 cases incorrectly classified by the RL model, P < 0.001). While the addition of human preferences increased the uncertainty of predictions on average, it decreased the uncertainty for melanomas if they were correctly predicted by the RL model (Fig. 1d and Extended Data Fig. 1b).

Next, we investigated the utility of the RL model for management decisions in a human-in-the-loop scenario. We conducted a reader study with 89 dermatologists who had to diagnose the same image with and without AI support and determine management, choosing between four treatment decisions: dismiss, excise, treat locally or monitor. For AI support, dermatologists were alternately offered the multiclass probabilities of the SL or the RL model. The rate of correct diagnoses increased from 68.0% (95% CI: 65.3–70.6%) without AI support to 75.3% with SL model support (mean difference +7.3%, 95% CI: 4.6–10.2%, P < 0.001) and to 79.9% with RL model support (mean difference +12.0%, 95% CI: 8.8–15.1%, P < 0.001). The readers’ sensitivity for melanoma improved from 62.4% (95% CI: 56.3–68.6.0%) without support to 69.4% (95% CI: 61.3–77.0%, P < 0.001) with SL model support and to 83.9% (95% CI: 77.7–89.0%, P < 0.001) with RL model support. The sensitivity for basal cell carcinoma was similarly improved while the sensitivity for other diagnoses did not decrease substantially (Fig. 1e). Furthermore, management decisions of expert readers improved with AI support (Fig. 1f). The proportions of optimal management decisions increased from 57.4% (95% CI: 54.2–60.5%) without AI support to 61.7 (95% CI: 58.0–65.3%, P = 0.03) with SL model support and to 65.3% (95% CI: 61.7–68.9%, P < 0.001) with RL model support. This improvement was most pronounced for melanoma (without AI: mean = 70.1%, 95% CI: 64.5–75.7%; SL model support: mean = 73.4%, 95% CI: 65.5–81.2%, P = 0.51, and RL model support: mean = 86.4%, 95% CI: 81.5–91.4%, P < 0.001).

Finally, we compared the reward-based RL model with a threshold-based SL model and a naïve model that simply chooses the optimal management strategy according to the top 1 class prediction of the SL model. To this end, we created three different clinical scenarios and used thresholds and rewards provided by ten experts in the field of skin cancer diagnosis (Fig. 2).

For the simplest scenario, we divided the data into a malignant (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma) and a benign class (nevi, vascular lesions, dermatofibroma and benign keratinocytic lesions) and considered only two treatment options, either ‘dismiss’ or ‘excision’. In this scenario, the proportion of malignant lesions that were managed by excision represented the true positive rate (TPR). As shown in Fig. 2b, the threshold-adjusted SL model and the reward-based RL model caused a shift in operating points on the receiver operating curve, bringing them closer to regions with an increased TPR. While the TPR was 78.2% for the naïve approach, it increased to 88.9% (95% CI: 80.9–96.9%) for the threshold-adjusted SL model and to 88.0% (95% CI: 83.4–92.5%) for the RL model. As shown in Fig. 2c, the TPR for melanoma was 68.4% for the naïve approach, 85.4% (95% CI: 74.7–96.0%) for the threshold-adjusted SL model and 82.5% (95% CI: 75.7–89.3%) for the RL model. The difference between the two models was not significant (P = 0.11).

Fig. 2: Comparison of models in three different scenarios.
figure 2

Top level (binary scenario: benign versus malignant): a, Experts’ malignancy probability thresholds for decision to excise (n = 10). Lines, median; boxes, 25th–75th percentiles; whiskers, values within 1.5 times interquartile range. b, Receiver operating characteristic curve derived from the SL model and operating points of ten experts using either thresholds (SL model) or rewards (RL model). Possible management decisions were ‘dismiss’ or ‘excise’. True and false positive rates refer to proportions of malignant and benign lesions that were excised. Black triangle, naïve approach (excision if malignant probability > 0.5). c, Boxplot comparing TPRs for melanomas applying thresholds (SL model) and rewards (RL model) provided by ten experts. Bars, means; whiskers, standard deviations (P = 0.11, paired t-test); dashed line, naïve approach. Middle level (multiclass scenario, additional therapeutic option): d, Thresholds of ten experts for probabilities of actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma for decision to treat locally. Line, median; boxes, 25th–75th percentiles; whiskers, values within 1.5 times interquartile range. e, Median rewards per action and diagnosis. fh, Confusion matrices of actions by diagnosis: naïve approach (f), threshold-adjusted SL model (g) and RL model (h). Lower level (patient-centered approach, 7,375 lesions, 524 patients): i, Thresholds of ten experts for malignancy probabilities for decision to dismiss, monitor or excise. j, Median rewards per action and diagnosis. k, Number of excisions of benign lesions by patient according to model. l, Number of monitored benign lesions by patient according to model. m, Management strategies for 55 melanomas according to model.

In a second scenario, we explored all seven diagnoses and added local therapy as a treatment option. While excision is the optimal management for melanoma and most basal cell carcinomas, local therapy is optimal for actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma. For this scenario, we used the median values of the expert estimates for both rewards and thresholds. We found that the threshold- and reward-based model were superior to the naïve model in increasing the frequency of the optimal management decision as well as in preventing mismanagement of malignant lesions (Fig. 2c–e and Extended Data Fig. 2). In the 307 malignant conditions that require treatment, mismanagement was at 21.8% in the naïve approach (95% CI: 17.2–26.4%), 13.4% in the RL model (95% CI: 9.8–17.7%) and 5.2% in the threshold-adjusted SL model (95% CI: 3.0–8.3%, P < 0.0001).

The most complex scenario involved monitoring of high-risk individuals with multiple nevi. Nevi are not only indicators of melanoma risk but also are potential precursors or may have morphologic criteria similar to melanoma. Most melanomas detected during monitoring are noninvasive, slow-growing lesions that mimic nevi. Short-term monitoring of these melanomas, while not optimal, is considered acceptable, as reflected in the moderate penalty set by the experts for this procedure (Fig. 2j). Because this scenario requires a more patient-centered and less lesion-centered decision-making approach, we created an RL model in which each episode consisted of all lesion images of a single patient to maximize the cumulative reward per patient. Here, as before, we used the median values of the expert estimates, except for the low-threshold model, for which we used the minimum value. In a test set of 7,375 lesions (7,320 benign lesions (98.5% nevi) and 55 noninvasive or microinvasive melanomas) from 524 patients (median: 12 lesions per patient, range: 6–51), the naïve approach would remove 9.1% (n = 5) of melanomas, while two patients (0.4%) would have >3 benign lesions removed. The threshold approach would remove 25.5% (n = 14) of melanomas and >3 benign lesions in 13 patients (2.4%). As shown in Fig. 2k, lowering the threshold results in a high number of patients with >3 excised benign lesions (n = 98, 18.6%) and with an increase of excised melanomas (49.1%, n = 27). The RL model would remove 61.8% (n = 34) and monitor 20% (n = 11) of melanomas, outperforming all other models in terms of acceptable management decisions for these melanomas (Extended Data Fig. 3). At the same time, 23 patients (4.4%) would have >3 benign lesions removed. A distinctive feature of the RL model would be the high number of benign lesions (41.6%, n = 3,045) that are monitored (Fig. 2f–h). This strategy aligns with the practices of expert clinicians when monitoring high-risk patients, aiming at reducing the number of missed melanomas while keeping the number of excisions within an acceptable range.

Here, we demonstrate that the integration of human preferences, represented as reward tables created by experts, enhances the performance of a pretrained AI decision-support system. Improvement is evident in both the system’s standalone performance and its ability to collaborate effectively with dermatologists. Dermatologists’ improvement may be due to the RL model reducing AI overconfidence by considering consequences of management decisions. We further show that incorporating human preferences improves management decisions in complex clinical scenarios. This optimization of medical decision-making has traditionally been captured by risk–benefit analysis, but due to the complexity of this method, individualized medical decision-making is not yet attainable15. The current trend toward AI-based decision support in medicine presents an opportunity to implement individualized medical decision-making in clinical practice. However, this can only happen if the concept of incorporating human preferences is also given greater consideration in the development of such systems.

Based on our results, we suggest that RL, among other techniques, could be a suitable tool for this purpose, although it is not necessarily the best solution. A limitation of the RL method is that the model must be retrained, whereas other simpler approaches, such as thresholding, can be applied without retraining. As demonstrated in our binary scenario, both methods—that is, the threshold method and the RL method—will improve management decisions compared to the naïve SL model by optimizing operating points on a decision curve. Another limitation is that we included only physicians’ but not patients’ preferences. There is growing emphasis on patient-centered care, where the preferences and needs of patients are considered. For future clinical applications, we envision physicians and patients collaborating in shared medical decision-making to jointly develop reward tables. Creating reward tables would provide a secondary benefit of making rewards explicit and transparent, enhancing the acceptance of AI decision-support tools. Our study focused on management decisions related to skin cancer diagnosis. Although the basic concepts can be applied to other diagnostic scenarios, those outside diagnostic medicine may require different approaches.

In conclusion, our study shows that incorporating human preferences can improve AI-based diagnostic decision support and that such preferences could be considered when developing AI tools for clinical practice. RL could be a potential alternative to threshold-based methods for creating tailored approaches in complex clinical scenarios. However, additional research, including evaluating patient and provider satisfaction, is necessary to fully uncover the potential of RL in this context.


Supervised learning and reinforcement learning

For the supervised learning, we fine-tuned a convolutional neural network for classification of seven different categories of the HAM10000 dataset, as described previously14. For RL, we created a deep Q-learning model consisting of a multilayer perceptron that receives as input a one-dimensional state vector from the feature vectors and probabilities of the supervised model. For the patient-centered scenario, we normalized the input vector to account for the context of multiple lesions (the lesion state vector was divided position-wise by the average across all lesion vectors of the same patient). Python language (v.3.8) was used to conduct all experiments. The RL models were implemented using TensorFlow v.2.8, together with a set of packages: NumPy (v.1.20.3), Scikit-Learn (v.1.1.2), pandas (v.1.3.4) and OpenAI Gym (v.0.23.1).

The RL models predict the Q-value for each possible action. Depending on the RL model, the action space was either selecting a diagnosis (seven actions) or selecting a management option, ranging from two actions (dismiss or excise) to four actions (dismiss, monitor, treat locally and excise), depending on the type of scenario. The RL models were trained following Mnih et al.11 using an exploration–exploitation strategy, a replay buffer and a target Q-network with a lower update rate to stabilize the training process11. Huber loss was adopted as the loss function and the weights of the Q-network were updated using the Adam optimizer with a learning rate of 0.025. To improve generalization, we added dropout layers with a probability of 0.05. We tested different configurations for the Q-network (number and size of the hidden layers and combination of the input state), buffer size, episode length, update rates for the Q-network and the target model, and exploration ε. The best Q-network models consisted of a multilayer perceptron with a 256-unit fully connected layer with a ReLu activation that processes the features of the supervised model, followed by the concatenation of its output with the logits. The concatenation is fed to the output layer, which has the same units as the number of possible actions and a linear activation. The replay buffer size was set to 10,000 and the update rates for the Q- and target networks were set to 4 and 8,000 iterations, except in the patient-centered model where the updates were set to 35 and 5,800 iterations. We also ran experiments with several episode lengths, ranging from 250 to 12, except in the patient-centered model where the episodes had a varying length depending on the number of lesions per patient. We found that the episode length had a marginal effect on the performance of the RL model. In the case of the patient-centered model, we found that ordering the lesions according to malignancy probability inside the episode led to better performances. Finally, the ε was set to 0.2. We also found that modifications to the reward table resulted in only minor changes or degradation of results compared to the originally designed reward table.

We used the HAM10000 dataset to train all RL models, except in the patient-centered scenario1. To track the evolution of the models, we split the original HAM10000 set into a single 80/20 partition, of which the latter was used as the validation set. Because of the relatively small number of patients and the high variability in the number of lesions per patient, the patient-centered dataset was used to train and evaluate the RL model based on a 20-fold cross-validation strategy.

The reward table for the basic RL model was created in advance in consensus by three expert dermatologists (H.K., P.T., V.R.). To compare the reward model with the threshold model in different clinical scenarios, we asked 12 dermatologists with extensive experience in treating neoplastic skin lesions to provide us with their reward tables and thresholds for each scenario. Because two of the 12 experts provided incomplete information (they did not specify thresholds for either the binary scenario or the scenario with the additional treatment option), we had a total of ten expert assessments available. Treatment decisions using the threshold model followed a preference-based hierarchy. The model initially determined if the predicted melanoma probability exceeded the excision threshold. If not, it considered the overall malignancy probability and then the probabilities of basal cell carcinoma and actinic keratosis/intraepidermal carcinoma. The median values of the rewards and thresholds were used for the SL model and the RL model, respectively. For the low-threshold approach in the patient-centered scenario, we used the minimum value rather than the median value of the ten thresholds reported by the experts.


We calculated the Shannon entropy as a measure of uncertainty in the predictions of the machine learning models using the following formula, where H is entropy, X is a discrete random variable with possible probabilities (p) ranging from p1 to pn, and i is an index variable:

$$H\left(X\right)=H\left({p}_{1},\ldots .,{p}_{n}\right)=-\mathop{\sum }\limits_{i=1}^{n}{p}_{i}\log 2{p}_{i}$$


The publicly available HAM10000 dataset was used to train the SL model and the RL model1.

The ISIC 2018 challenge test set was used as an independent test set for the reader study and for the external validation of the SL model and the RL model3.This set includes 1,511 retrospectively collected dermatoscopic images from different sites including Austria (n = 928), Australia (n = 267), Turkey (n = 117), New Zealand (n = 87), Sweden (n = 92) and Argentina (n = 20) to ensure diversity of skin types. The mean age of patients was 50.8 years (s.d.: 17.4 years), and 46.2% of patients were female. The ground truth was routine pathology evaluation (n = 786), biology (that is, >1.5 years of sequential dermatoscopic imaging without changes; n = 458), expert consensus in inconspicuous cases that were not excised or biopsied (n = 260) and in vivo confocal images (n = 7). Fewer than ten cases with ambiguous histopathologic reports were excluded. For the patient-centered scenario, we used dermatoscopic images of 7,375 lesions from 524 patients (mean: 51.1 years, s.d.: 11.8 years, 46.6% females). Images were collected either at the University Department of Dermatology, Medical University of Vienna (n = 4,839) or at a dermatology practice in Vienna (n = 2,536). The consecutive dataset included 55 melanomas, all of which were either noninvasive (in situ) or microinvasive (<0.8 mm invasion thickness, tumor stage T1a). Most benign lesions that were selected for monitoring by the treating dermatologists were nevi (n = 7,213). The remaining benign lesions were keratinocytic lesions (n = 53), dermatofibromas (n = 31), or vascular lesions (n = 20) and other benign lesions (n = 3).

Interaction platform, raters and reader study

We used the web-based platform DermaChallenge, which was developed at the Medical University of Vienna, as the interface for the reader study16.The platform is split into a back end and front end, and both are deployed on a stack of standard web technologies (Linux, Apache, MariaDB and PHP). The front end is optimized for mobile devices (mobile phones and tablets) but can also be used on any other platform via a JavaScript-enabled web browser. Readers were recruited by using mailing lists and social media posts from the International Society of Dermoscopy. To participate in the study, raters had to register with a username, a valid email address and a password. In addition, we asked for age (age groups spanning 10 years), sex, country and profession. The readers’ task was to diagnose the unknown test images first without and then with decision support based on either the SL model or the RL model. The images were presented in batches of ten selected randomly from the test set of 1,511 images. We drew a stratified random sample to ensure a predefined class distribution of three nevi, two melanomas and one example of each other class. Readers could repeat the survey with different batches at their own discretion. The study was online from 17th November 17th 2022 to 2nd February 2023. During this time, we collected 613 complete tests from 89 dermatologists.

Statistical analysis

Comparisons of continuous data between groups were performed with paired or unpaired t-tests or Wilcoxon signed-rank tests, as appropriate. Chi-square tests or McNemar tests were used for proportions. Reported P values are two-sided and a P value < 0.05 was regarded as statistically significant. All analyses were performed with R Statistics v.4.2.1 (ref. 17) and plots were created with ggplot2 v.3.3.6.

Ethics statement and informed consent

This project was conducted after ethics review by the Ethics Review Board of the Medical University of Vienna (Protocol No. 1804/2017, Amendment 4th April 2022). When registering, all participants of the reader study platform agreed that their data could be used for scientific research and were made aware that they could revoke this consent at any time. Readers received no compensation for their participation.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Portfolio Reporting Summary linked to this article.