Schematic of process for classifier design

Guest blog: 21st century surgery is digital

Ronan Cahill, Digital Surgery Unit, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin, Ireland and UCD Centre for Precision Surgery, Dublin, Ireland.

Niall Hardy, UCD Centre for Precision Surgery, Dublin, Ireland.

Pol MacAonghusa, IBM Research, Dublin, Ireland.

Twitter @matersurgery Email:

Cancerous tissue behaves differently from non-cancerous tissue. Every academic oncology paper ever written tells us this. The appearances of any cancer primary (or indeed secondary lesion) result from biological and molecular processes that are the hallmarks of malignancy including dysregulated cell function and composition, host-cancer stromal and inflammatory response and angiogenesis. However, we surgeons haven’t really yet been able to exploit this knowledge during surgery in a way that helps us make a better operation. Instead, our learning and research about oncological cellular processes has predominantly advanced through basic science geared more towards perioperative prognostication and/or adjuvant therapy stratification. Wouldn’t it be great if realisation of cancer microprocesses could usefully inform decision-making intraoperatively?

We’ve just published an initial report in the BJS showing this very thing – that it is indeed possible to ‘see’ cancer by its behaviour in real-time intraoperatively. We’ve used Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods in combination with near-infrared fluorescence laparoendoscopy to judge and classify neoplastic tissue nature through the observation of differential dye diffusion through the region of interest in comparison with that happening in normal tissue being viewed alongside it. Through our understanding of biophysics (flow parameters and light/dye interaction properties), a lot of information can be drawn out over short periods of times via advanced computer vision methodology. With surgical video recording in the region of 30 frames per second, big data generates over the time frame of a few minutes.  While the gross signal shifts are discernible even without AI, smart machine learning capabilities certainly mean their interrogation becomes really usable in the provision of classification data within moments. What’s more, while we’ve focused initially on colorectal cancer, the processes we are exploiting seem common across other solid cancers and using other camera-based imaging systems. By combining with the considerable amount of knowledge we already have accrued regarding tissue biology, chemistry, physics as relate and indeed surgery, our AI methods are giving explainable and more importantly interpretable recommendations with confidence using a smaller dataset than that demanded by deep learning methodologies.

This though is just an early exemplar of what’s becoming possible through ‘Digital Surgery’, a concept that seems far more likely to transform contemporary surgical practice than our current general surgery “robotic” systems, hulking electromechanical tools entirely dependent on the user – a rather 20th century concept! Indeed, there is sophisticated technology everywhere in today’s operating theatres – surgeons sure don’t lack technical capability. Yet often despite vaulting costs, advance of real, value-based outcomes has been disappointingly marginal in comparison over the last two decades. The key bit for evolved surgery is instead going to be assisting surgeons to make the best decision possible for each individual patient by providing useful, discerning information regarding the surgery happening right now, and somehow plugging this case circumstances directly into the broad knowledge bank of expertise we have accrued as a profession (and not just be dependent on any single surgeon’s own experience).

To do this we need to realise the importance of visualisation in surgical procedures versus manual dexterity.  All surgery is performed through the visual interpretation of tissue appearances and proceeds via the perception-action cycle (‘sense, predict, act, adjust’). This is most evident during minimally invasive operations where a camera is used to display internal images on a screen but applies of course to open procedures as well. As all intraoperative decisions are made by the surgeon, the entire purpose of surgical imaging has been to present the best (‘most visually appealing’) picture to the surgeon for this purpose. Experiential surgical training is for the purpose of developing the ‘surgical eye’, that is learning how to make qualitative intraoperative judgments reliably to a reasonable standard. We haven’t however gotten the most out of the computer attached to the camera beyond image processing where we have concerned ourselves with display resolutions and widths. 

Imagine instead if some useful added interpretations of images could be made without adding extra cognitive burden to the surgeon, perhaps with straightforward on-screen prompts to better personalise decisions? This would be particularly exciting if these data were not otherwise easily realisable by human cognition alone and could be immediately and directly relevant to the person undergoing the operation. Every operation is in effect a unique undertaking, informed by probabilities accruing through individual and collected prior experience for sure but a new thing in and of itself for which the outcome at the time of its performance is unknown. How this individual patient differs from others and most especially how might an adverse outcome be avoided is a crucial thing to flag before any irreversible surgical step that commits an inevitable future. 

Right now, we are in a golden age of imaging. This is intricately linked to advances in computer processing and sharing power along with AI methods. This means we can harvest great additional information from the natural world around us across the spectrum of enormous (radio waves spanning the universe) to tiny (high resolution atomic imaging) distances and apply methods to help crystalise what this means to the observer. While a lot of AI is being directed at the easier and safer areas of standard patient cohort datasets, increasingly it’s possible to apply computer intelligence to the data rich surgical video feeds being generated routinely during operations to present insights to the surgeon. While early first steps at the moment relate to rather bread and butter applications such as instrument or lesion recognition and tracking as well as digital subtraction of smoke or anonymization protocols to prevent inadvertent capture of operating rooms teams when the camera is outside the patient, soon the capability to parse, segment and foretell likely best next operative steps will be possible at scale.

At present, the biggest limitation is that surgery lacks large warehoused archives of annotated imagery because operative video is a more complex dataset to scrutinise than the narrower image datasets available in specialities such as radiology, pathology and ophthalmology. Thanks to advances in computing, this is changing. Surgical video aggregation to enable building of representative cohorts is increasingly possible and, by combining with metadata and surgical insights, its full value can begin to be realised. GDPR frameworks provide structure and surgeons are increasingly understanding of the value of collaborating in research, education and practice development. However, while certain siloed sites focused around specific industry projects are already manifesting, the key area for greatest general advance lies within the surgical community combining broadly to construct appropriately developed and secured, curated video banks of procedures that can then be made accessible to entities from regulators and standard bodies, academia and indeed corporations capable of advancing surgery. This gives by far the greatest chance of the best of surgical traditions carrying through the 21st century while our weak spots are fortified for better surgery in the public interest.

Further reading: 
Artificial intelligence indocyanine green (ICG) perfusion for colorectal cancer intra-operative tissue classification.
 Cahill RA, O’Shea DF, Khan MF, Khokhar HA, Epperlein JP, Mac Aonghusa PG, Nair R, Zhuk SM.Br J Surg. 2021 Jan 27;108(1):5-9. PMID: 33640921 

The age of surgical operative video big data – My bicycle or our park? Cahill RA, MacAonghusa P, Mortensen N. The Surgeon 2021 Epub ahead of press

Ways of seeing – it’s all in the image. Cahill RA. Colorectal Dis. 2018 Jun;20(6):467-468. PMID: 29864253

tangled threads

Appendicitis (really).

tangled wicker mooring ropes in ship

Sometimes you read a collection of paper and see common threads. Here are some from BJS Open.

Nihil sub sole novum

The phrase ‘nothing new under the sun’ is often a cry of despair borne from monotony. Is this true for appendicitis? From reading this article from 1893, there are certainly principles that remain constant. There has been a recent flurry of papers on appendicitis published in BJS Open. As I’ve been reading them as they hit early access, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at them and see where they fit in the wider context of the literature and practice. 

We enter 2021 with the non-operative management of acute uncomplicated appendicitis being broadly accepted as a viable option. This has likely been increased by the (ongoing) COVID pandemic, with its subsequent impact on surgical resource and workforce availability.

First of all, appendicitis remains relevant. The paediatric surgery research priority setting exercise had two questions on appendicitis; one on the antibiotic only approach in uncomplicated appendicitis, and one on the use of drains post-operatively.

Telling the difference

And then we turn our attention to discriminating between complicated and uncomplicated appendicitis. What is the best modality? As a profession, we are keen not to over irradiate our patients with excessive CT scans. Naturally, we look to ultrasound and MRI scans. Unfortunately, a systematic review of diagnostic accuracy in all three modalities found limitations in both US and MRI, and a high negative predictive value when CT is used. So that is settled then, CT to reassure us that the patient has uncomplicated appendicitis and can be managed non-operatively.

Caution was raised by a study from Helsinki, Finland. This looked at 837 patients diagnosed with uncomplicated appendicitis on CT scan, and found that at surgery, 22% had perforated. The data is from 2014/2015, which isn’t *that* long ago, although it feels higher than I expected. So perhaps we need a better test to pick out complicated appendicitis?

Blood tests

Enter Kiss et al, who looked at genetic expression in peripheral blood mononuclear cells. This study found upregulation of genes associated with T & B cell interaction in those patients who had phlegmonous appendicitis, and upregulation of markers of antibacterial activity (e.g. monocytes and neutrophils). Perhaps this is interesting and personalised blood test to explore for the future. Point of care testing anyone? On the point of novel tests, an Irish group looked at the role of circulating fibrocytes in the diagnosis of appendicitis. This is a class of cells that is increased in states of inflammation. Sensitivity and specificity were in the high 60s, but in a modest sample that might be expected. Something to investigate further in a larger sample for sure. 

And finally, the role of blood tests in the immunosuppressed, specifically the HIV+ve patient. We classically use blood tests such as leucocyte count or C-reactive protein to aid diagnosis. This study from South Africa showed that, perhaps counterintuitively, CRP levels tended to be higher in HIV+ve patients with appendicitis than HIV-ve patients with appendicitis. Leucocyte levels were lower in the HIV+ve group. Useful to know this data exists as many of the risk models used are not calibrated for this population.


To wrap this up, I want to point out the opening gambit from the paper by Kiss et al:

‘Surgeons know how to treat appendicitis: either surgically with appendicectomy and supporting measures like abscess drainage, or conservatively without operation’

Whilst we may retain the technical principles of surgery, there is work to do. This seems to be around:

  • Improving the diagnosis of appendicitis, hopefully avoiding radiation in the process.
  • Accurate estimation of risk of perforation in patients with a diagnosis of appendicitis

Publications arising in the last six months in BJS Open alone suggest that we have a way to go to truly ‘know‘ how to treat appendicitis.


Patients should receive COVID-19 vaccine before surgery to reduce risk of postoperative death – study

The CovidSurg collaborative have published a new paper in BJS showing that global prioritisation of pre-operative vaccination for elective patients could prevent an additional 58,687 COVID-19-related deaths in one year. Watch the video abstract above or read the paper for free.

BJS Connect hashtag image

A summary of the #BJSConnect tweetchat on pregnancy and parenthood for surgeons

An interview with past BJS Editorial Assistant Claire Donohoe on the paper she co-authored entitled “Pregnancy, parenthood and second-generation bias: women in surgery

Thank you for joining us @ClaireDonohoe6. Here is the first question. Can you summarise in one sentence the take-home message from the paper?

Second-generation bias results in perceptions that surgeons fit a certain stereotype & pregnancy is highly disruptive to the prevailing culture …so… until we change the culture we can’t make pregnancy more ”acceptable”.

Current policy can be seen to amplify female difference and may even be viewed as “benevolent sexism”.

Changing the culture may make working as a surgeon more enjoyable and sustainable for all surgeons, not just parents.

Thank you @ClaireDonohoe6! Now for Question 2: What is second generation bias?

This is bias that is often unintended and unconscious, whereby people who don’t meet the stereotypical norms of the profession, fail to thrive in the environment despite “mitigating” strategies.

For example, mothers may not achieve leadership roles and this is attributed to their parenting roles. The “solution”? Women should be encouraged to accept policies aiming to mitigate work-family conflicts BUT this may actually impede their advancement.

To an extent we all play the role that is expected of us – we act a certain way because that is how it “should” be – e.g. “my male colleagues take 3 weeks annual leave so I should take 3 weeks leave post-partum” so as not be disruptive.

You mentioned that there is a difference in perception between male and female surgeons. Can you explain this a little more?

Studies show that other professionals & patients have different perceptions of communication and personalities of male & female surgeons. “Warm” males are seen as competent, but “warm” females are not. In reality gender shouldn’t influence perception of competence (but it does).

What are some of the challenges facing surgeons who are parents?

What is a normal life event is seen as disruptive because of the work culture of surgery. Combining family life with attentive patient care means that the traits maintaining the status quo: perfectionism, compulsion, denigration of vulnerability & martyrdom are questioned. Also my personal privilege protects me from lots of the issues facing others of lower income, less secure employment and other biases.

Thank you. And finally: What do you think the solutions might be?

Policy to support diverse lives outside of work will be required, at a minimum, to enable culture change.

@RCSI_Irl have PROGRESS fellowships for senior female trainees AND have done a lot of work on underlying issues (see here). Thanks to work from @dmcsurg and others.

Research tells us that focusing on “equipping women” has not lead to increased leadership participation for women – culture needs to change (see @sinead_lydon‘s systematic review).

IMHO, the bare minimum should be: reasonable limits on working during the third trimester, adequate parental leave, on-site childcare, support and mentorship.

For example… from a consultant surgeon job advert: “There is… access to a Childcare Co-ordinator to help staff with their childcare arrangements”.

We should aim for diversity – families exist in multiple forms, females are not the default primary caregiver. Many men would prefer accommodations to allow them participate more fully in family life. Some people choose not to become parents AND also have commitments

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

Guest post: Why should you care about the history of surgery?

Dr. Tyler Rouse is an anatomical pathologist at the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance in Stratford, Canada, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Pathology at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University. He is the creator and host of the history of surgery podcast ‘Legends of Surgery’.

Why should you care about the history of surgery?

To begin with, it is unquestionably fascinating and fun. The history of surgery is filled with heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, progress and setbacks, but continuously moves towards the easing of suffering and the protection and prolonging of life. Yet there is something deeper and more meaningful that can be gained from the study of history. It grounds us, gives us a richer understanding of the world in which we live, and tells us how we arrived at this point in history, and provides a sense of identity and belonging in the world. 

The knowledge we now possess finds its origins in the writings of Hippocrates and Galen and the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, which is reflected in the Latin and Greek roots of the words of the ‘lingua franca’ of medicine that we use every day. This was preserved and advanced during the Dark Ages by the physicians and surgeons of the Islamic Golden Age, and then “rediscovered” in the Renaissance, until the scientific revolution of the Age of Enlightenment shook us from the bonds of classical dogma and led to an explosion of medical and surgical knowledge through experimentation. The Industrial Age created added significant technological advances, arguably the most important of which was the ability to inhibit pain and avoid infection, allowing surgeons to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of the human body. This opened the window to the contributions from surgeons from across the globe that have brought us to this moment in time. This accumulated knowledge has been passed down from master to apprentice, teacher to learner, staff to student, in an unbroken chain that directly links us with the surgeons of the past.

Their influence is all around us when we step into the operating theatre, from hand washing (Semmelweiss), to the asepsis of the operative field (Lister), to the wearing of surgical gloves (Halsted) to the countless eponymously named instruments, procedures, and anatomical structures, that are part of every operating theatre around the world. Just about every part of an operation links us to the past, and to the people that came before us who discovered this hard-won knowledge. 

File:Use of the Lister carbolic spray, Antiseptic surgery, 1882. Wellcome M0003436.jpg
Use of the Lister carbolic spray. Credit: Antiseptic surgery : its principles, practice, history and results / by W. Watson Cheyne. Public Domain Mark. From Wellcome Images.

Studying these individual surgeons can both inspire us, and serve as a warning by demonstrating how good intentions can lead us astray. In addition to their contributions to surgical practice, many surgeons were basic scientists, Nobel Prize winners, public health advocates, artists, musicians, writers, and influential public figures that captured the imagination of society, both with their innovative breakthroughs and sometimes, their larger than life personalities. The English surgeon Percival Potts discovered the link between chimney sweeping and scrotal cancer in 1775, considered the first identification of an environmental carcinogen. American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography on Sir William Osler. South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first successful heart transplant, was also an outspoken opponent of apartheid. And there are countless other examples.

Harvey Williams Cushing. Photograph by W.(?)W.B.
Harvey Williams Cushing. Credit: Harvey Williams Cushing. Photograph by W.(?)W.B. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Surgeons have also experimented on the unwilling; for example, J. Marion Sims (of Sims retractor fame) did much of his ground-breaking work on obstetrical fistulas on African-American enslaved women in the mid-1800s. A number of surgeons were associated with the Nazi party, including Nobel Prize winner and French surgeon-scientist Alexis Carrel and the pioneering German thoracic surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch. And surgeons have taken part in the eugenics movement and forced sterilization, among other failings. Studying these examples shows us how surgery is not practiced in isolation, but rather affects and is effected by the world, society, and history. Surgeons have the potential to accomplish great things, but are also human, with all the flaws that come with it, and are not immune to the ills that plague society at large. It is important to recognize the bad with the good, and to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges in medicine and surgery today is the epidemic of burnout, the causes of which are multifactorial, but includes a loss of finding meaning and purpose in work, and a feeling of disconnection. I believe that knowledge of our shared history, and studying those that came before us, can give a sense of identity and meaning to the practice of surgery. In an era of increasingly burdensome administrative tasks, it is easy to feel a sense of detachment and futility. But by studying the history of surgery, a greater sense of being rooted in community and purpose can be nurtured, and inspiration can be found to further the development of surgery towards better treatments and innovations, and to advocate for the patients that, too, have been a part of this shared history. 

Senior surgeon training junior surgeon in laparoscopy

Guest post: The Great Danes? Surgical training on a 37-hour week

By Mr Henry G Smith MBBS MRCS PhD, specialist registrar at The Digestive Disease Center, Bispebjerg Hospital, University of Copenhagen

The number of hours in training that it takes for a surgical trainee to achieve both clinical and technical competence is a seemingly endless topic of debate. The significant global
variation in a surgical trainee’s average hourly week begs the question as to why such variation exists and to what extent all training programmes are created equal (1). Given the increasing recognition of burnout amongst medical professionals, and its association with excessive workloads, it is reasonable to think a shorter working week may benefit the surgical trainee’s wellbeing (2). However, any potential benefits much be weighed against the risk of reducing training opportunities and clinical exposure. Having personal experience of both British, with its nominal 48-hour working week, and Danish general surgical training, where surgeons work a 37-hour week, it is clear that whilst these countries have very similar healthcare systems, they differ markedly in their approach to training. Whilst neither training programme is without its limitations, their differences highlight potential ways in which the efficiency of surgical training may be improved.

The most striking difference between the British and Danish programmes is the absence of the ‘firm’ structure in Denmark. Trainees belong to the department rather than to subspeciality specific teams. The same is true of acutely admitted patients, who whilst broadly divided into those with upper and lower gastrointestinal conditions are not ‘owned’ by the consultant who was on call at the time of admission. As a consequence, there are no ward rounds, post-take or otherwise. Instead, the acute and elective inpatients are divided more or less equally between consultants and trainees alike, with a typical ratio of 2-3 patients to be seen by a single doctor each day. The lack of a rigid structure dictated by a team-based ward round leads to much greater flexibility in all other aspects of the working day. These days are thematic, with trainees having 4 major functions: elective operations, endoscopy, outpatient clinics and on-calls. When a trainee is not assigned to one of these functions, they have zero hours to be used as they see fit.

The flexibility of the Danish system brings two major advantages. The first is that the structure leaves the trainee with the feeling that the majority of time spent at work is spent training. That feeling is emphasised by the organisation of the operating days in particular.

Whilst the trainee spends undoubtedly fewer days in an elective theatre than in the British system, these days are almost exclusively spent attending training lists. Attended by a single trainee and a consultant, comprising repeated exposure to the same operation and booked on the presumption that the trainee will be the primary surgeon, these lists maximise training opportunities. The same is more or less true in endoscopy, where the trainee has their own full day list, with a supervisor on hand if needed. The second advantage is that the planning of absence from work for annual leave, courses or conferences is far less complicated. The minimum number of trainees required at work is determined at a departmental level, avoiding the need to organise cross cover between firms. As such, denied requests to attend conferences are very much the exception rather than the rule and it is almost unheard of that a trainee would be unable to take all of their allocated leave during a rotation.

These structural differences are accompanied by an in-house culture that not only prioritises training but is also ferocious in its defence of working conditions. There is a greater expectation for trainees to be actively involved, at least in part, in the majority of operations, and independent operating is encouraged at a much earlier stage. Senior house officers are expected to be capable of independently performing common acute operations, such as appendicectomies, and whilst consultants are often present for laparotomies, their presence is not compulsory. ‘Service provision’ is rarely mentioned, perhaps a reflection of a healthcare system that is better resourced to match the demands of its population. With regard to the working environment, trainees hold a structured monthly meeting for both positive and negative feedback on issues ranging from training opportunities and supervision to the frequency of on-call duties and conditions of the on-call rooms. The vocal complaints in a recent meeting of the comfiness of the on-call beds are not only a far cry from trying to catch some rest on an old sofa in a British hospital mess but also give an insight into how seriously the Danes take their working conditions.

However, not all the differences are positive. The greater flexibility in the Danish system
places greater demands on the discipline of its trainees. Although there are still dedicated
rotations in trauma and tertiary centres, the lack of other subspecialty specific rotations
means that the trainee must take more responsibility for ensuring that they meet the specific requirements of the training programme. Whilst focused trainees may turn this to their advantage, allowing them to focus on their preferred subspecialty at an earlier stage of training, those who are as of yet undecided may be at risk of drifting in a less structured system. In a similar vein, for a trainee raised in the British system, the absence of the firm structure is accompanied by a sense of a lack of belonging, at least at the beginning of a new placement, although this is somewhat lessened by the daily morning conferences, attended by the whole department. A further concern is the consequences a more flexible system has on the quality and continuity of care. It is not uncommon for acutely admitted patients to be seen by a different doctor each day, a situation commonly thought to increase the risk of delays in discharge or investigations. However, this does not appear to have an adverse effect on patient outcomes, with a 30-day mortality following high-risk laparotomies of approximately 20% in Denmark, mirroring the reports from the National Emergency Laparotomy Audit (NELA) in Britain (3-5). Finally, one must remember that achieving competence as a surgeon is not only about developing technical skills. As the old saying goes “good surgeons know how to operate, better surgeons know when to operate, and the best surgeons know when not to operate”. Although the Danes may have a more efficient approach to the technical aspects of training, it is undeniable that the clinical exposure of British trainees is far greater. The cumulative clinical experience of following both elective and acute patients from admission to discharge is difficult to replicate and whilst any differences in decision-making seem to have disappeared by the end of training, these skills appear to develop more rapidly in the British systems. Disruptions to the continuity of care present another barrier for clinical exposure in the Danish system, with the following up of the patients seen on-call or in the operating theatre left to the trainee’s own initiative.

The hourly week occupies much of the debate on surgical training and, in doing so,
prioritises quantity over quality of training. With a focus on maximising the efficacy of
training opportunities, the Danish surgical training system demonstrates how surgeons can be effectively trained on a shorter working week. Whilst this system has its own limitations, the organisation of a trainee’s operative commitments in particular provides an example for other systems to follow. Surgical training faces major challenges ahead, with a global pandemic that has not only limited training opportunities but also taken an inevitable toll on workforce morale (6). Furthermore, the backlog of operations cancelled since the beginning of the pandemic is likely to place a huge emphasis on efficiency in operating theatres, which may have further negative effects on training opportunities (7-8). However, the return of some degree of normality will also offer the opportunity to reconsider the structure of training and perhaps in doing so, the best aspects of these respective training systems could be combined, shifting the focus away from the number of hours spent at work to the amount of time spent training.


  1. Jackson GP, Tarpley J. How long does it take to train a surgeon? British Medical
    Journal. 2009, 5;339:b4260.
  2. Galaiya R, Kinross J, Arulampalam T. Factors associated with burnout syndromes in
    surgeons: a systematic review. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
    2020, 102(6):401-407.
  3. Cihoric M, Tengberg LT, Foss NB, et al. Functional performance and 30-day post-
    operative mortality after emergency laparotomy – a retrospective, multicenter,
    observational cohort study of 1084 patients. Perioperative Medicine. 2020, 9(13).
  4. Peacock O , Bassett M G, Kuryba A, et al., National Emergency Laparotomy Audit (NELA) Project Team. Thirty-day mortality in patients undergoing laparotomy for small bowel obstruction. Br J Sur. 2018 Jul;105(8):1006-1013. doi: 10.1002/bjs.10812. Epub 2018 Mar 30
  5. Boyd-Carson H, Doleman B, Herrod P J J, et al., on behalf of the NELA Collaboration, Association between surgeon special interest and mortality after emergency laparotomy, British Journal of Surgery, Volume 106, Issue 7, June 2019, Pages 940–948,
  6. COVIDSurg Collaborative. Elective surgery cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic: global predictive modelling to inform surgical recovery plans. Br J Surg. 2020;107(11):1440-1449. doi:10.1002/bjs.11746
  7. Rai O, Fernandes R. COVID-19 and the reintroduction of surgical training. British Journal of Surgery, Volume 108, Issue 1, January 2021, Page e6,
  8. Hennessy O, Fowler A L, Hennessy C, et al. Covid 19 and Surgical training: Carpe Diem. British Journal of Surgery, Volume 107, Issue 12, November 2020, Page e591,

NodeXL graph of twitter users whose tweets or mentions contained the hashtags #SoMe4Surgery and #SurgicalTechnology. The graph is directed. The graph's vertices were grouped by cluster using the Clauset-Newman-Moore cluster algorithm. The graph was laid out using the Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale layout algorithm.

Proceedings of the #SoMe4Surgery tweetchat on the future of surgical technology


1. Rebecca C Grossman MA MBBS AKC DHMSA MRCS, Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK 

2. Graham Mackenzie MD FRCPE, Penicuik Medical Practice, Imrie Place, Penicuik, UK

3. Julio Mayol MD PhD, Professor of Surgery, Chief Medical Officer, Hospital Clinico San Carlos, Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria San Carlos, Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain. 

Competing interests: The authors declare no competing interests.

Funding: No funding was provided for this study.

Previous presentations: The findings of this study were presented as a poster at the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract 60th Annual Meeting on the 21st May 2019. 


It has long been the tradition to publish the Proceedings of surgical conferences 1. Over the last 15 years, the way surgeons interact has transformed extensively due to the advent of social media, with much of the conversation moving online 2-3. The covid-19 pandemic acted to accelerate this transition 4. The microblogging platform Twitter provides a vast library of information and allows real-time communication and dissemination of information, grouped along themes via a “hashtag” (metadata tag) 5-8. Twitter use is increasing among surgeons, researchers, healthcare professionals, and patients.

Organised conversations on Twitter, so-called “tweetchats”, are a forum through which experts, trainees, and patients from around the globe can communicate and discuss topics of shared interest via a hashtag and moderated by a host 5,7,9. Tweetchats allow real-time back and forth conversation, similar to face-to-face interactions10. These conversations are a treasure-trove of ideas that can provide great insight into the most cutting-edge trends in surgical practice 7,11-13.

On 28th July 2018, a social media initiative was created by Julio Mayol via his Twitter handle (@juliomayol), to focus on specific surgical interests, connected via the hashtag #SoMe4Surgery (Social Media For Surgery) 14. The aim was to bolster a more inclusive, multidisciplinary surgical community. Since the inception of #SoMe4Surgery, a number of tweetchats were planned and undertaken using the hashtag. In November 2018, a tweetchat was held with the subject of surgical technology. This theme was chosen as surgical technology is rapidly evolving in many directions, under multiple influences 15, and the authors felt it was a key time to take stock in where we are and where we are going. The aim of this study was to identify the main themes of the chat on surgical technology and to estimate the potential reach of the tweets.



No ethical approval was required for this retrospective study as it did not interfere with any patient or human data beyond measuring internet activity among Twitter users using publicly available tweets.

Sampling and data extraction

A retrospective analysis was performed of the tweetchat that was led by two surgeons with 941 (@rebgross) and 24,539 (@juliomayol) followers on November 23rd 2018, with ten predefined questions. The #SoMe4Surgery ecosystem was the primary target of the conversation. Ten tweets containing questions for the audience were posted in a 60-minute period (9:00 pm – 10:00 pm Madrid time). 


Data analytics and visualization were carried out using two different online tools. Twitonomy is available at, and provides advanced network analytics of tweets, hashtags and tweetchats, under subscription. Twitonomy analytics were performed by author JM on November 29th 2018, of tweets posted between November 22nd 2018 at 8:15 pm and November 29th 2018 at 8:17 pm using the two hashtags, “#some4surgery” and “#surgicaltechnology”. Potential reach was defined as the total aggregate number of followers of the people who mentioned both keywords in their tweets. Potential reach may be overestimated as Twitonomy may make assumptions to estimate impressions and/or audience, and geolcations are sometimes misclassified; therefore NodeXL analytics were also examined by author GM. NodeXL is a spreadsheet template that allows the creation of visual network graphs (Social Media Research Foundation; California, USA; Using NodeXL, the extracts for 23rd November 2018 were extracted and mapped as described elsewhere 16.

The tweets from the tweetchat were manually reviewed on Twitter by author RG by searching for the terms [#SoMe4Surgery since:2018-11-23 until:2018-11-30] on 18th June 2019 to identify the themes of the chat for content analysis. Replies to the questions posted by the moderators were also reviewed to avoid missing tweets that did not include the hashtag. The handles (usernames) and profiles of the users were manually reviewed.



Twitonomy analytics revealed that, between 22nd November 2018 at 8:15 pm and 29th November 2018 at 8:17 pm, there were 348 tweets and retweets including the two hashtags posted by 60 users (40 men, 13 women, 7 unknown) from 50 geolocations in 5 continents. From the biographical information available in their Twitter profiles, specialties included general surgery (5), HPB/transplant (4), plastics/cosmetic (2), vascular (4), ophthalmology (1), hernia (1), colorectal (5), cardiovascular (1), endocrine/bariatric (1), spinal (1), global (1), trainees (1), associations (1), and non-medical (5). Conflicts of interest of individuals participating in the tweetchat included working for private health tech companies (4), criminal defence lawyer (1), and running the tweetchat (2).

From Twitonomy, the potential reach was 1,883,455 accounts. A tweetmap of the users of both #SoMe4Surgery and #SurgicalTechnology hashtags can be found in Fig. 1. 

Fig. 1. Tweetmap of the users of both #SoMe4Surgery and #SurgicalTechnology hashtags

NodeXL data revealed, over the 1-day, 2-hour, 48-minute period from Thursday, 22nd November 2018 at 19:15 UTC to Friday, 23rd November 2018 at 22:04 UTC, there was a network of 39 Twitter users whose recent tweets contained both #SoMe4Surgery and #surgicaltechnology hashtags (Fig. 2), or who were replied to or mentioned in those tweets. There were 39 vertices, 71 unique edges, 303 edges with duplicates, 374 total edges, and 22 self-loops. Reciprocated vertex pair ratio was 0.19, and reciprocated edge ratio was 0.32. In a connected component, there were 39 maximum vertices and 374 maximum edges.

Fig. 2. NodeXL graph of twitter users whose tweets or mentions contained the hashtags #SoMe4Surgery and #SurgicalTechnology. The graph is directed. The graph’s vertices were grouped by cluster using the Clauset-Newman-Moore cluster algorithm. The graph was laid out using the Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale layout algorithm.

Over the 21-hour, 40-minute period from Friday, 23rd November 2018 at 00:18 UTC to Friday, 23rd November 2018 at 21:59 UTC, there was a network of 152 Twitter users whose recent tweets contained the #SoMe4Surgery hashtag (Fig. 3), or who were replied to or mentioned in those tweets. There were 152 vertices, 329 unique edges, 546 edges with duplicates, 875 total edges, and 44 self-loops. Reciprocated vertex pair ratio was 0.13, and reciprocated edge ratio was 0.22. In a connected component, there were 128 maximum vertices and 848 maximum edges.

Fig. 3. NodeXL graph of twitter users whose tweets or mentions contained the hashtag #SoMe4Surgery. The graph is directed. The graph’s vertices were grouped by cluster using the Clauset-Newman-Moore cluster algorithm. The graph was laid out using the Harel-Koren Fast Multiscale layout algorithm.

From Twitonomy, the ten most influential users (8 men, 1 woman, 1 unknown) had a median number of followers of 16,648 (range 747-3­44,648). The ten most engaged users (4 men, 3 women, 3 unknown) posted a median number of 27 tweets (range 11­-346). The top hashtags were #SoMe4Surgery, #surgicaltechnology, #surgicalpractice, #AI and #SSI.

Current technological improvements to surgical practice

In a poll asking which surgical technology has most significantly improved surgical practice (Question 4), preoperative imaging received the most votes (53% out of 288 votes), with intraoperative imaging receiving 10% of the votes (Fig. 4). @WarrenRozen stated that preoperative imaging is certainly of benefit, while intraoperative imaging has not yet demonstrated this effect despite having great potential. @MrRJEgan stated that preoperative imaging reported by specialists can improve quality and outcomes. @perbinder highlighted that this was particularly important in vascular surgery, where preoperative Duplex and CT angiography are widely used. @SJ_Chapman suggested that in colorectal surgery, medical imaging in general had revolutionised patient care before, during and after surgery, for example with the use of post-processing CT colonography, PET-CT, and MR. @EUrologyReg agreed, stating that the now widespread availability of CT scans has had a huge impact on surgical decision-making.

Fig. 4. Screenshot of Question 4 of the tweetchat. Poll: “Which surgical technology has more significantly improved your surgical practice?”

Energy delivery systems received 33% of the votes. @DrSantiagoOrtiz explained that technologies such as laser, phacoemulsification, and vitrectomy had revolutionised his field of ophthalmology. @MrRJEgan stated that the main benefit of energy devices lies in efficiency and reduced operating times.

Biomaterials received the fewest votes (4%) and were considered more likely to be of benefit in the future (@WarrenRozen), although @DrSantiagoOrtiz thought that they were becoming very relevant in ophthalmology with the use of intraocular lenses.

@A160186 reported that endoscopy and endoluminal surgery have also changed the face of surgery, and that interventional radiology has radically impacted the management of surgical conditions, pointing out that it is a non-surgical technology, and that saving the patient from having an operation should be considered an achievement in itself. @DrSantiagoOrtiz agreed that non-surgical technology will likely have the highest impact in surgical practice.

In a poll asking which surgical technology is most frequently used for intraoperative bleeding (Question 7), 82% of the 102 votes were for energy delivery devices, 10% for fibrin sealants, and 2% for thrombin gels (Fig. 5). @YorkLawLondon stated that intraoperative bleeding can be problematic in fibroid surgery, and that pharmacological therapy, such as preoperative hormone suppressants and intraoperative vasopressin, is frequently used to counter this.

Fig. 5. Screenshot of Question 7 of the tweetchat. Poll: “What surgical technology do you most frequently use for intraoperative bleeding?”

In a poll asking about the use of surgical technology to reduce the rates of surgical site infection in surgical practice (Question 5), 40% voted “yes” (of 78 respondents), 22% voted “sometimes”, and 31% voted “no” (Fig. 6). @DrSantiagoOrtiz expressed surprise by the high proportion answering “no”, stating that the use of such technology is widespread in ophthalmology.

Fig. 6. Screenshot of Question 5 of the tweetchat. Poll: “Do you use any surgical technology to reduce the SSI rates in your surgical practice?”

Future innovations in surgical technology to improve patient safety

A wide range of technological innovations were proposed to improve patient safety in future surgical practice. These included energy devices, advances in anaesthesia, pharmacology, information technology services and data management, radiology and nuclear medicine, and advances in medical allied medical specialities such as gastroenterology, clinical genetics, and medical oncology.

An area in which many Twitter users were interested was navigation-guided surgery, particularly with respect to finding the right planes and avoiding at-risk structures (@dr_samehhany81). @A160186 described a “surgical GPS or an intraoperative Siri/Alexa” to guide surgeons through tough terrain. @polom_karol took this further, adding a preoperative diagnostic tool overlay and the help of artificial intelligence to assist in surgical decision making.

“It would be great if during a lap cholecystectomy [you] could just go ‘Siri [please] tell me if this is the cystic duct’ (hoping she’d have the right answer).” (@A160186)

@Eric_Vibert and @jamestoml1 both highlighted the importance of the OR Black BoxTM in changing the relationship between surgery and human error, which has a significant impact on patient safety. @schnitzb suggested that direct loop feedbacking would lead to a reduction in human error.

The most commonly mentioned technological advance was laparoscopic and robotic surgery. @CelestinoGutirr argued that robotic surgery improves the technical precision of surgery; @alessiominuzzo countered that as it has been introduced as an “instrument” and its indications have altered, its use should be considered “off label surgery”, or should only be in the context of research. It was compared to laparoscopy, with @RNCsantander and @anhanssen suggesting that the outlook for robotics was similar to that of laparoscopy in its early days, and @DrSantiagoOrtiz stating that the evidence has shown laparoscopy to improve patient safety, while the jury is still out for robotics. Overall, the consensus was that, in the future, the evidence would reveal robotic surgery to be beneficial to patient safety.

In a poll asking how robotic surgery will evolve in the future (Question 2), 42% of respondents (134 votes) predicted that robots would be smaller (Fig. 7). Only 11% of respondents thought that robotic surgery would be phased out. @tuttlejebetsy argued that the “the case reimbursement is too low for sustainability and widespread adoption”, suggesting that robotic surgery only has a future as long as it can demonstrate a sustainable, cost-effective return on investment.

Fig. 7. Screenshot of Question 2 of the tweetchat. Poll: “How will robotic surgery evolve in the future?”

@RNCsantander questioned how we can improve the learning curve and training in robotic surgery to generalize its use. The high cost of the technology was felt to be a barrier to its accessibility (@A160186, @RNCsantander, @rcanterocid). @rebgross suggested the use of simulation training, and @A160186 suggested that robotics should be included in training or fellowship programs, arguing that one must have seen it to practise, and subsequently teach, the technique. @JoshuaTylerMD stated that skill monitoring and improved mentorship via online platforms were essential in improving training.

Three-dimensional printing for surgical practice

In a poll, 51% of 164 individuals voted to say that three-dimensional (3D) printing might be useful for surgical practice (Question 6), while 35% said it will have a big impact, and 7% voted for “it’s a fad” (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Screenshot of Question 6 of the tweetchat. Poll: “What is your opinion on 3D printing for surgical practice?”

Participants of the tweetchat had found 3D printing to be useful in colorectal (@dr_samehhany81) 17, orthopaedic and maxillofacial (@rcanterocid), and vascular surgery (@TMCAvascular).

@GaneshPuttu and @JasamineCB both stated that 3D printing has been useful in complex cases or with complex anatomy, to assist in visualisation for pre-operative planning, as well as an education tool for trainees and patients, with @MMakgasa suggesting they be used in the consent process. @TMCAvascular called 3D printing fundamental for case planning, posting “before” and “after” images of a ruptured cannulation site pseudo-aneurysm treated with an atrial septal device via brachial approach with intravascular ultrasound and intracardiac echography with the aid of 3D printing.

@LumsdenHMDHVC stated that his centre had moved away from 3D printing for training purposes, for which they used virtual simulation, but that its use was better indicated in case planning and device printing. @jmills1955 thought that the ability of 3D printing to allow the creation of patient and anatomic-specific devices would lead to it having a significant impact. @VerranDeborah echoed its use for implants and extended this to the biofabrication of tissue, suggesting that it may pave the way for the printing of organs in 10-20 years.

Artificial intelligence and its impact on surgical practice

Overall, the consensus was that artificial intelligence (AI) had the potential to have a significant impact on surgical practice. @juliomayol suggested that AI will change the way decisions are made and outcomes are monitored. @dr_samehhany81 and @Dr_A_Sturiale countered that AI would aid and complement the work of humans, but will never replace them.

In particular, it was thought that AI would have the largest impact in medical specialties in which imaging plays a crucial role in diagnosis (@DrSantiagoOrtiz). It was also felt that AI may result in a lower workload and administrative burden, with more time left to devote to direct patient care (@schnitzb). @polom_karol had a dramatic view of AI, stating: “AI will change all”, and that it was “the biggest revolution since [the] early beginning of surgery.” @hgok went so far as to suggest that in only 10 years, appendicectomies and cholecystectomies would be performed by AI-controlled robotic platforms, but that in hernia surgery this would take more time to develop.

@A160186 felt that one of the biggest benefits of AI would be found in patient safety, by creating “safety checkpoints” in clinical decision making, leading to the standardisation of diagnostics and procedures. She added that it was not clear whether AI would ever be autonomous; @YorkLawLondon and @DSoybel suggested this would mean it would only be as good as the data entered, and, for example in diagnostics, a diagnosis could be missed. @DSoybel further posed the critical question of who would control the data and algorithms. @YorkLawLondon added that any outsourcing could lead to companies exploiting or restricting data access and profiting from it; @DSoybel answered: “If neither data nor algorithms are proprietary there would be chaos. If both are proprietary there would be monopoly and potential for gaming. If one is and the other is not, there will be competition.”

“I’m sure surgeons prefer artificial intelligence over lack of intelligence.” @A160186

The patient’s perspective

There were some very insightful answers given when patients were asked which surgical technology they most valued. They can be found here. The most common theme was that the surgeon was valued above the technology.

Ethical issues in the development of new surgical technology

The issue of data ownership again arose when discussing the ethical issues surrounding the development of new surgical technology (@polom_karol).

The evaluation of risks and benefits was frequently mentioned (@CelestinoGutirr, @RNCsantander). Other issues included the dangers of optimism bias (@rebgross), as not all innovations are successful or result in improved patient care, and publication bias (@SJ_Chapman), leading to research waste 18. @SJ_Chapman also stated that it is ethically essential to determine not only if biotechnology results in patient benefit, but also the mechanics of why it works and has benefit, and that this would require well-designed qualitative work and patient and public involvement to facilitate the future development of the technology. @DrJamesGlasbey raised the issues of learning curves, proctorship, and early outcomes reporting. @schnitzb added the problems of rushing a product into market based on inadequate data. Finally, @coezycoe suggested that value and cost would have an impact on patient access to new surgical technology.

“[We] need to avoid ‘try it, bin it’ attitudes when evaluating surgical [biotechnology].” @SJ_Chapman


Principle findings

The tweetchat reached a global audience across different surgical specialties, as well as attracting engagement from patients.

The form of surgical technology currently found to be the most useful among the tweetchat participants was preoperative imaging. Energy delivery systems were the most commonly used technology to assist with intraoperative bleeding. Most participants employed surgical technology to reduce the rates of surgical site infection. Exciting avenues for future innovation included navigation-guided surgery, increased use of the OR Black BoxTM, and developments in laparoscopic and robotic surgery. The use of 3D printing and AI were both considered to increase in the coming years, with potential advances in automation. There were numerous important ethical issues to consider when developing new surgical technology. Finally, the consensus among patients was that, while advances in surgical technology were welcome, they were not as important or valued as the surgeon who employs them.

Limitations of analytics

It should be noted that Twitter polls are unvalidated and subjected to selection bias, and one person may also control multiple accounts. Although some users provide information about their areas of expertise in their Twitter bios, this is unregulated, and they may not include conflicts of interest. There is therefore the risk of non-expert or uncited opinions being included in the synthesis. This caveat must be emphasised when sharing such data.

Some data may be confounded by “incidental retweeting”, whereby if a tweeter uses two hashtags together, it is not always possible to determine from which hashtag the retweet results. Third party social media tools tend to overestimate impressions and audience. Although Twitter Analytics may provide a more accurate measure of impressions, this is not possible to collect from a tweetchat in which multiple Twitter accounts are engaged. Finally, collecting such data is subject to the Hawthorne effect, where changes in behaviour may be affected by the act of observation 19.

To validate the findings, further research could incorporate validated methods of qualitative research, such as thematic analysis. 


Social media may be used to disseminate information within a vast surgical ecosystem, engaging surgeons with a strong social media presence. The use of a standardised hashtag in a tweetchat allows information to reach a high volume of global Twitter users in the surgical community in a short space of time. Tweetchats between a diverse group of surgeons, allied health professionals, and the general public, can be a goldmine for determining the direction of future surgical innovations.


The authors are grateful to the #SoMe4Surgery community for continued support.


  1. Dukes CE. Discussion on major surgery in carcinoma of the rectum with or without colostomy, excluding the anal canal and including the rectosigmoid: general results of surgical treatment. Proc R Soc Med. 1957;50(12):1031-1035.
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  3. Grajales FJ, Sheps S, Ho K, Novak-Lauscher H, Eysenbach G. Social media: a review and tutorial of applications in medicine and health care. J Med Internet Res. 2014;16(2):e13. doi:10.2196/jmir.2912.
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Healthcare workers wearing PPE and surgical gown, Creative Commons image

Guest post: COVID Secure Surgery

Aneel Bhangu (@aneelbhangu), University Hospital Birmingham, UK,

Dhruv Ghosh, CMC Ludhiana, India 

Maria Picciochi (@MariaPicciochi), Hospital Prof Doutor Fernando Fonseca, Portugal

Dmitri Nepogodiev (@dnepo), University Hospital Birmingham, UK

Virtually all elective surgical services around the world suffered some form of shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic1. Now, patients and surgeons are desperately looking to re-start services. Efforts to re-start after the first waves faced multifactorial challenges, including patient safety and ensuring enough staff along the whole patient pathway to support operating theatre availablity.2,3

The impact of the reduction in surgical capacity is likely to be staggering. Initial estimates of 28 million cancelled operations likely escalated to 50 million towards Autumn 2020, and may now be in excess of 100 million. That is only one part of the story, since the many undiagnosed patients with surgical conditions sitting in the community over the last 12 months may never make it to a surgeon or waiting list. Without adequate surgical capacity, there will be a major global decline in population health due to the burden of a full range of inadequately treated non-communicable diseases. 

There is no single factor or solution that will enable surgery to re-start at scale, quickly. There is no single set of solutions that will work across every region. Since every single hospital around the world functions differently, context specific and whole system solutions are needed. 

Vaccination will hopefully provide solutions to the current pandemic, although the global rollout is occurring at different paces globally, meaning surgical recoveries will differ. Cultural challenges across countries are adding to this variation. Unlike acute major incidents which disable elective surgical but are quickly over (e.g. major trauma or bombings), this pandemic has exposed specific, longer-term weaknesses of current systems. Post-pandemic planning will now happen across all spectrums of society. Surgeons need to lead efforts to create resilient elective surgical services that are pandemic resistant for the future, advocating for hospital and political awareness. 

The COVIDSurg collaborative has taken a data driven approach to supporting safe surgery, and for 2021-2022 will provide further data to support re-starts globally. Data is needed across the whole system and patient pathway, that includes referrals, preoperative selection, perioperative testing and safety, postoperative risk reduction, and structural organisation of hospitals4–6

Figure 1 – Centres enrolled in COVIDSurg studies

Learning from other non-medical disciplines, surgeons have little barometer of how secure their elective surgical services are compared to everyone else’s. COVIDSurg will deliver a validated Elective Surgery Resilience Index in the first half of 2021, allowing surgeons to test their systems and identify areas for immediate strengthening. 

Re-starting surgery safely will be a complex interplay of these multiple factors. Not all resources will be available across all regions, and in some resource limited settings, surgery is at risk of being seen as a burden. To further support the re-start, an easily accessible, digital, online toolkit is needed that will provide key take-home messages and downloadable pathways for surgical teams to take and adapt. This will include the ability to self-certify individual department and hospital level of COVID Secure Surgery. This will provide the building blocks to provide ring-fenced, pandemic secure surgery by 2030.

Conflicts of interest: We have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Funding: No funding was received for this blog article.


1.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. Elective surgery cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic: global predictive modelling to inform surgical recovery plans. Br J Surg. 2020;107(11):1440-1449. doi:10.1002/bjs.11746

2.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. Mortality and pulmonary complications in patients undergoing surgery with perioperative sars-cov-2 infection: An international cohort study. Lancet. 2020;396(10243):27-38. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31182-X

3.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. COVID-19-related absence among surgeons: development of an international surgical workforce prediction model. BJS Open. doi:10.1093/BJSOPEN/ZRAA021

4.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. Outcomes from elective colorectal cancer surgery during the SARS‐CoV‐2 pandemic. Color Dis. December 2020:codi.15431. doi:10.1111/codi.15431

5.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. Elective cancer surgery in COVID-19–Free surgical pathways during the SARS-cov-2 pandemic: An international, multicenter, comparative cohort study. J Clin Oncol. 2021;39(1):66-78. doi:10.1200/JCO.20.01933

6.        COVIDSurg Collaborative. Preoperative nasopharyngeal swab testing and postoperative pulmonary complications in patients undergoing elective surgery during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Br J Surg. 2021;108(1):88-96. doi:10.1093/bjs/znaa051

Visual abstract of merged trials on bariatric surgery

Visual abstract: Merged SLEEVEPASS and SM-BOSS trials

Laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass versus laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy: 5-year outcomes of merged data from two randomized clinical trials (SLEEVEPASS and SM-BOSS)

Recently published as open access in BJS, the 5-year results of the merged Finnish SLEEVEPASS and Swiss SM-BOSS randomised controlled trials comparing laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy with laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass shows that Roux-en-Y led to greater weight loss and better control of hypertension than sleeve gastrectomy, with no difference in outcomes for type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea, or quality of life. More details can be found in the paper.

Holding hands by the beach

Guest post: Oncological endpoints and human relationships

By Deep Chakrabarti, MD, Senior Resident, Department of Radiotherapy, King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, India

I reach the radiotherapy outpatient department on a Monday morning geared up and ready for the week ahead. With thoughts of a busy day and a busy week lying ahead of me, little do I appreciate then that my experiences over the week will continually repeat in cycles, much like the entire human existence and offer me reflections on life. The pandemic has made many of us re-evaluate ourselves and our relationships, many of which have been strained.

I believe that oncology endpoints can be assumed to mimic human relationships. A 70-year-old frail gentleman has a metastatic oral cavity cancer and is planned for palliative therapy with oral methotrexate. While his overall survival will most likely be a few months, we offer him oral metronomic chemotherapy and supportive care aiming for a decent quality of life. Most chemotherapeutic agents offer a similar overall survival of around six to nine months in the context of advanced or metastatic head and neck cancers. Similarly, in life, some relationships come with an expiry date, no matter what.

A 50-year-old gentleman presents with a recurrence of his locally advanced rectal cancer nine months after completing adjuvant treatment. Our surgical colleagues have seen him, and his disease has been deemed unresectable. He has been started on chemotherapy with oxaliplatin and capecitabine and has tolerated the first two cycles.  I know well it is a matter of time that the drugs will delay progression. Progression-free survival (PFS) is a popular endpoint in oncology research that loosely means the time it takes for a disease to get worse.1 Interpersonal relationships are often subject to intense emotional and mental stress, that require continual repairing. However, situations arise when it may not be possible to start on a clean slate entirely, and one is left with no choice but to accept whatever has happened and move on. In other words, one has to take the inevitable that the relationship cannot be “cured”, but further worsening can be avoided. For some tumours like advanced ovarian or colorectal cancers, PFS may even be a loose surrogate for overall survival and may often be nearly equal to overall survival. Likewise, some relationships may not worsen again after one episode when both parties make conscious efforts to put things behind them and move on.

On Tuesday, I see a 40-year-old lady with visceral dissemination of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer receiving systemic chemotherapy. While she and her family have been counselled about their predicament, they may still have some time with their loved one to fulfil their wishes. Like the overall tenure of each human relationship, overall survival parameters vary grossly from one cancer to another. For example, a metastatic gall bladder cancer is likely to be fatal in a matter of mere months, even with the best available chemotherapy. On the contrary, a man with metastatic prostate cancer can be expected to survive a few years with the current standards of care. 

Overall survival is the gold standard when it comes to measuring the worth of any cancer-directed intervention.2However, in patients or in relationships where one knows that the writing is on the wall, quality of life, or quality of the time left in the relationship is a premium. Quality of life is a crucial metric that seeks to quantify the actual well-being of an individual.3 While one may explore multiple therapeutic options to prolong life, one has to make a conscious decision as to how the prolongation will impact on its quality. Merely prolonging life while impairing its quality is detrimental. Similarly, when one knows that a relationship is irreparable, it is best to consider its quality than to keep trying to prolong it endlessly.

On Wednesday, I get an urgent consultation request for a lady with non-small cell lung cancer admitted in the neurosurgical ward who has presented with acute onset lower limb weakness with bladder and bowel involvement and has been diagnosed to have metastatic spinal cord compression. She is 70 years old with a WHO performance score of 2. The surgeons have already determined she is not a candidate for decompression. She is taken for urgent palliation with a single fraction of radiotherapy, with adequate steroid cover. Similar to the previous example, while her fate is probably already decided, but the urgent intervention offers to improve her quality of life, even if minimally.

On Friday, I get a call for radiotherapy planning for a patient who has cervical cancer with brain metastases and had received primary chemoradiotherapy three years ago. She is 74 years old, with a WHO performance score of 3 and requires continuous oxygen support. A decision is taken not to treat her with radiotherapy to the brain but offer her supportive care. Her three-year disease-free interval reminds me that a repaired relationship may suffer a relapse at any time. And sometimes a relapse can be so devastating that it does not offer much in terms of salvage.

On Saturdays, I see my radiotherapy patients on their weekly follow-up. We have a preponderance of head and neck cancer patients who will often present with grade II or III acute skin and mucosal toxicities as they move into the last weeks of therapy. Acute radiation reactions are defined as those occurring within 90 days of treatment and usually heal entirely with adequate care. However, late reactions or those occurring beyond 90 days persist and never completely heal. Some acute reactions may persist as late reactions, the so-called “consequential late reactions” (for example, chronic xerostomia is a consequential late reaction to acute xerostomia). For human relations, an acute bad episode may be amenable to rationalization and understanding, that may completely disappear like the resolution of acute radiation mucositis. But they may even persist, and then never go away completely. Therefore, the role of supportive care cannot be overemphasized, both in cancer care and in human relations.

The previous year has been a revelation for all of us. While it has subjected us to intense mental, emotional, and physical stress4, we have gained a thorough idea of what is vital in our lives. It is imperative that human relationships are valued on par with professional commitments, and the ongoing global crisis should teach us to prioritize personal contentment over professional gains. A morbidity audit from the CDC in August 2020 depicted that nearly one in four healthcare professionals had considered suicide in the immediately preceding one month for their troubles.5 While this is an alarmingly high number, it depicts the frailties ingrained in each of us and reiterates that before clinicians, we are humans. Even when our human forms are damaged and broken, sometimes beyond repair, empathy and patience for ourselves and our fellow beings might hold the key in this perennial struggle. May the progression-free survival of our relationships always closely mimic their overall survival.6 After all, as said by Rabindranath Tagore, “faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

Conflicts of interest: There are no conflicts of interest to declare.

Funding: There is no funding to declare.


1         Korn RL, Crowley JJ. Overview: Progression-Free Survival as an Endpoint in Clinical Trials with Solid Tumors. Clin Cancer Res 2013; 19: 2607–12.

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3         Selby P. The value of quality of life scores in clinical cancer research. Eur J Cancer 1993; 29A: 1656–7.

4.        Vallée M, Kutchukian  S , Pradère  B et al. Prospective and observational study of COVID-19’s impact on mental health and training of young surgeons in France. Br J Surg. 2020 Oct;107(11):e486-e488.  doi: 10.1002/bjs.11947.

5         Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020; 69: 1049–57.

6         Lebwohl D, Kay A, Berg W, Baladi JF, Zheng J. Progression-Free Survival. Cancer J 2009; 15: 386–94.