Treatment of missing data in Bayesian network structure learning: an application to linked biomedical and social survey data

Xuejia Ke, Katherine Lisa Keenan, V.A. Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Availability of linked biomedical and social science data has risen dramatically in past decades, facilitating holistic and systems-based analyses. Among these, Bayesian networks have great potential to tackle complex interdisciplinary problems, because they can easily model inter-relations between variables. They work by encoding conditional independence relationships discovered via advanced inference algorithms. One challenge is dealing with missing data, ubiquitous in survey or biomedical datasets. Missing data is rarely addressed in an advanced way in Bayesian networks; the most common approach is to discard all samples containing missing measurements. This can lead to biased estimates. Here, we examine how Bayesian network structure learning can incorporate missing data.

We use a simulation approach to compare a commonly used method in frequentist statistics, multiple imputation by chained equations (MICE), with one specific for Bayesian network learning, structural expectation-maximization (SEM). We simulate multiple incomplete categorical (discrete) data sets with different missingness mechanisms, variable numbers, data amount, and missingness proportions. We evaluate performance of MICE and SEM in capturing network structure. We then apply SEM combined with community analysis to a real-world dataset of linked biomedical and social data to investigate associations between socio-demographic factors and multiple chronic conditions in the US elderly population.

We find that applying either method (MICE or SEM) provides better structure recovery than doing nothing, and SEM in general outperforms MICE. This finding is robust across missingness mechanisms, variable numbers, data amount and missingness proportions. We also find that imputed data from SEM is more accurate than from MICE. Our real-world application recovers known inter-relationships among socio-demographic factors and common multimorbidities. This network analysis also highlights potential areas of investigation, such as links between cancer and cognitive impairment and disconnect between self-assessed memory decline and standard cognitive impairment measurement.

Our simulation results suggest taking advantage of the additional information provided by network structure during SEM improves the performance of Bayesian networks; this might be especially useful for social science and other interdisciplinary analyses. Our case study show that comorbidities of different diseases interact with each other and are closely associated with socio-demographic factors.
Original languageEnglish
Article number326
Number of pages16
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2022


  • Simulation study
  • Missing data
  • Bayesian networks
  • Social science
  • Multimorbidity


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