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Background: The use of “Big Data” in plastic surgery outcomes research has increased dramatically in the last 5 years. This article addresses some of the benefits and limitations of such research.
Methods: This is a narrative review of large database studies in plastic surgery.
Results: There are several benefits to database research as compared with traditional forms of research, such as randomized controlled studies and cohort studies. These include the ease in patient recruitment, reduction in selection bias, and increased generalizability. As such, the types of outcomes research that are particularly suited for database studies include determination of geographic variations in practice, volume outcome analysis, evaluation of how sociodemographic factors affect access to health care, and trend analyses over time. The limitations of database research include data which are limited only to what was captured in the database, high power which can cause clinically insignificant differences to achieve statistical significance, and fishing which can lead to increased type I errors. The National Surgical Quality Improvement Project is an important general surgery database that may be useful for plastic surgeons because it is validated and has a large number of patients after over a decade of collecting data. The Tracking Operations and Outcomes for Plastic Surgeons Program is a newer database specific to plastic surgery.
Conclusions: Databases are a powerful tool for plastic surgery outcomes research. It is critically important to understand their benefits and limitations when designing research projects or interpreting studies whose data have been drawn from them. For plastic surgeons, National Surgical Quality Improvement Project has a greater number of publications, but Tracking Operations and Outcomes for Plastic Surgeons Program is the most applicable database for plastic surgery research.

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