Big Data in Surgery

May 11, 2020: Posted by Ankit Raj

COVID-19 has taught us many things including that information is surplus, rapidly evolving and grows exponentially. The huge amount of data associated with ongoing COVID19 studies is definitely a boon for the society which is still developing its understanding of the diseases but also a bane if not processed systematically. While the fields of genomics, infectious diseases, epidemiology and molecular biology seems to have embraced the Big Data warmly and utilizing it with maximal efficiency; surgery and allied specialties appear to have lagged behind in truly integrating Big Data in their research and clinical practice.

The term “big data” refers to collecting and processing data that is so large, complex and exponentially growing that it’s difficult to analyze them through traditional methods. While the big data itself is not unique to surgery what with American College of Surgeon’s National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (ACS NSQIP) and multiple other ongoing studies focused on surgical care in COVID crisis such as PanSurg and CovidSurg; these are still just the tip of the iceberg and may not even be considered big data by many. The fault also lies in our failure to give it the due importance it deserves.

Big data offers us the undue advantage of collecting data equally from both HIC and LMIC institutions simultaneously. Subsequently this information can later be used to generate evidence that is relevant to all regions of the world without offering any bias or discrimination. It would specially benefit and empower surgeons from LMIC institutions and remote regions that have so far been unable to participate in research projects or access the information generated out of it. It elevates their participation in interventional studies while simultaneously improving the quality of research. The current surgical environment can act like a big culture plate to generate and analyze big data. Intra-op and post-op monitoring of patients and surgical outcomes, varied clinical presentations in oncology, trauma care and guidelines, and minute technical details of laparoscopic and robotic surgeries are the sources of raw information for the growth of big data. Data driven clinical decision making support tools through the use of AI and mobile applications can greatly benefit surgeons practicing in rural and remote regions or those working without any institutional support care.

There will still be certain limitations like any other use of digital technology in medical and surgical care. The privacy and ethics of this data is hugely controversial and there is a lack of central consensus on where is the middle ground. The technology to anonymize and encrypt data is still at a nascent stage and has massive room for improvement, especially when data is as critical and private as surgical ones. Even the privacy and data protection laws vary widely between countries and what may be acceptable in some countries can be deemed unlawful in others.

Big data will be an important part of our life as a surgeon in future! The only question is how long until we start using it as a tool to generate faster, economical, real-time, global and evidence based research outcomes.


1.Integrating “big data” into surgical practice

Ankit Raj About Ankit Raj – India | @RajAnkit14
Junior doctor from India with interests in global surgery, international relations and health policy. Occasionally writes. Rants on twitter.

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