VA surgery database explanation available for medical research reporting

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr

Surgery research can become complex very quickly: Not only are there the underlying conditions and demographics of each patient to consider, but also different characteristics particular to the procedure itself, the circumstances of the procedure, the institution and the providers doing the procedure.

If you frequently report on surgery studies, you may have covered a study that used data from the Veterans Affairs Surgical Quality Improvement Program (VASQIP).

The database, which was legislated by Congress to improve care quality, tracks all patients who undergo surgery through the VA. The database is remarkable in capturing a lot of data but that abundance also makes it easy — sometimes too easy — for researchers to inadvertently fall into the trap of including too many variables in their research and adjustments.

The AHCJ’s Medical Studies Core Topic data area now has a section on what this government database includes and limitations of use. We hope this mini tip sheet will help reporters be more confident when reporting on studies using any of the databases discussed there. It’s based on an article in a JAMA Surgery series about the uses, considerations and limitations of various databases frequently used in surgery-related research.

Keep in mind: The lure of Big Data — it’s ability to compare just about anything to just about anything with huge numbers of people — also can be one of its biggest limitations. With populations large enough and enough different variables, current methods of statistical adjustment can too easily find “significance” that may not be truly significant. Reporters need to know what to look for to be sure researchers haven’t fallen in this pitfall.

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