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Open Access Research article

Understanding human functioning using graphical models

Markus Kalisch12*, Bernd AG Fellinghauer12, Eva Grill3, Marloes H Maathuis2, Ulrich Mansmann4, Peter Bühlmann2 and Gerold Stucki1356

Author Affiliations

1 Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPF), Nottwil, Switzerland

2 Seminar für Statistik, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

3 Institute for Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany

4 Department of Medical Informatics, Biometry and Epidemiology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany

5 Department of Health Sciences and Health Policy, University of Lucerne, Lucerne, Switzerland

6 ICF Research Branch, WHO FIC CC Germany (DIMDI) at SPF, Nottwil, Switzerland

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2010, 10:14  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-10-14

Published: 11 February 2010

Abstract

Background

Functioning and disability are universal human experiences. However, our current understanding of functioning from a comprehensive perspective is limited. The development of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) on the one hand and recent developments in graphical modeling on the other hand might be combined and open the door to a more comprehensive understanding of human functioning. The objective of our paper therefore is to explore how graphical models can be used in the study of ICF data for a range of applications.

Methods

We show the applicability of graphical models on ICF data for different tasks: Visualization of the dependence structure of the data set, dimension reduction and comparison of subpopulations. Moreover, we further developed and applied recent findings in causal inference using graphical models to estimate bounds on intervention effects in an observational study with many variables and without knowing the underlying causal structure.

Results

In each field, graphical models could be applied giving results of high face-validity. In particular, graphical models could be used for visualization of functioning in patients with spinal cord injury. The resulting graph consisted of several connected components which can be used for dimension reduction. Moreover, we found that the differences in the dependence structures between subpopulations were relevant and could be systematically analyzed using graphical models. Finally, when estimating bounds on causal effects of ICF categories on general health perceptions among patients with chronic health conditions, we found that the five ICF categories that showed the strongest effect were plausible.

Conclusions

Graphical Models are a flexible tool and lend themselves for a wide range of applications. In particular, studies involving ICF data seem to be suited for analysis using graphical models.