Objective: Accurate estimations of surgical case durations can lead to the cost-effective utilization of operating rooms. We developed a novel machine learning approach, using both structured and unstructured features as input, to predict a continuous probability distribution of surgical case durations. Materials and Methods: The data set consisted of 53 783 surgical cases performed over 4 years at a tertiary-care pediatric hospital. Features extracted included categorical (American Society of Anesthesiologists [ASA] Physical Status, inpatient status, day of week), continuous (scheduled surgery duration, patient age), and unstructured text (procedure name, surgical diagnosis) variables. A mixture density network (MDN) was trained and compared to multiple tree-based methods and a Bayesian statistical method. A continuous ranked probability score (CRPS), a generalized extension of mean absolute error, was the primary performance measure. Pinball loss (PL) was calculated to assess accuracy at specific quantiles. Performance measures were additionally evaluated on common and rare surgical procedures. Permutation feature importance was measured for the best performing model. Results: MDN had the best performance, with a CRPS of 18.1 minutes, compared to tree-based methods (19.5–22.1 minutes) and the Bayesian method (21.2 minutes). MDN had the best PL at all quantiles, and the best CRPS and PL for both common and rare procedures. Scheduled duration and procedure name were the most important features in the MDN. Conclusions: Using natural language processing of surgical descriptors, we demonstrated the use of ML approaches to predict the continuous probability distribution of surgical case durations. The more discerning forecast of the ML-based MDN approach affords opportunities for guiding intelligent schedule design and day-of-surgery operational decisions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1885-1893
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the American Medical Informatics Association
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020


  • Machine learning
  • Perioperative medicine
  • Statistical models
  • Surgical duration


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