Hospitals use Twitter and live webcasts to showcase surgical procedures online


This newborn was photographed minutes after birth. In the live-streaming era, such images are old news. (ISTOCKPHOTO)
May 6, 2013

With a gentle pull and a “Hi, cutie!” a doctor pulls a baby from an incision in the mother’s abdomen. Within seconds, the newborn has launched into a squalling cry. It’s a boy!

And Twitter goes wild.

Yes, Twitter. This bouncing baby boy made his Internet debut Feb. 20 as the star of the first live-tweeted Caesarean section. Though live webcasts and other social media events surrounding surgery are not new, Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston elevated the art form by choosing to broadcast a feel-good procedure. More than 87,500 people have viewed the video online since it was posted.

Live-streamed and live-tweeted surgeries have become increasingly common, with doctors touting their educational benefits and hospitals enjoying the public-relations bump. Plenty of patients are happy to go under the knife on camera, too.

But online surgical broadcasts aren’t without controversy: At least one major surgeons group is discouraging them outright.

Public viewings of surgery are an old trend made new again. In ancient Greece and in pre-20th-century Europe, surgeons often plied their trade in public, with family members and neighbors crowded around the patient. (It helped that the only viable surgeries were minor, and that in the Middle Ages, many surgeons doubled as barbers.)

The discovery of anesthetics in the mid-1800s made longer, more complex surgeries possible. This advance, combined with the realization that germs cause infection in surgical wounds, made surgery a more formal, professional, private affair.

But the advent of television let the public back into the operating room. In 1958, the BBC launched “Your Life in Their Hands,” a series that highlighted modern medical treatments, including surgery. And in the days before TLC turned to programming such as “Toddlers and Tiaras,” the channel ran “The Operation,” a show that featured videos of surgeries including gallbladder removals and Caesarean sections.

Hospitals have been live-webcasting surgeries on adults for years. In 2005, Boston Children’s Hospital became the first pediatric institution to broadcast a live surgery.

Many of these webcasts are available to the public, but they have been largely aimed at physicians through subscription-based online broadcasting services such as ORLive.

More recently, these broadcasts have become interactive. In 2009, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit performed the first live-tweeted surgery, a tumor removal using robotic tools. Google Plus and In­stagram also have hosted live surgeries.

Doctors who participate in these live webcasts see themselves in an educational role.

“The goal was really to unveil a very common surgery for women and to demystify it and show the step-by-step process of what actually goes on in a C-section,” said Anne Gonzalez, the Memorial Hermann obstetrician-gynecologist who performed the live-tweeted Caesarean.

“The things you see on TV are often edited to a significant degree,” Gonzalez said. “This was going to walk a patient through, starting from the minute they walked into the hospital.”

Robert Rivera, an ophthalmic surgeon in Salt Lake City who live-streamed a contact-lens implant last week, said he’s drawn to the interactive aspect of online surgery.

“Why not take this onto the Internet and allow patients from literally everywhere to watch a real-time procedure, to ask questions and to basically have an unprecedented opportunity to see the thing for themselves?” Rivera said.

The Society of Thoracic Surgeons feels otherwise. The group frowns upon live broadcasts of surgery even for the benefit of other physicians, unless the educational value is high. Twitter broadcasting is strongly condemned by the group.

“Surgeons should not participate in live surgery broadcasts to the public or lay audiences using any medium, including television and the Internet,” according to the society’s guidelines.

Some patients question the practice, too. Elaine Schattner, a journalist and physician who has undergone multiple major surgeries, questions putting hospital resources into live-tweeting.

“The way I see it, most hospitals are short-staffed, so to have a person who is the designated tweeter paid for by the hospital is absurd,” she said.

Schattner also expressed concern about potential distractions to the surgeon and whether social media surgeries serve a purpose beyond public relations. There’s no extra benefit to live surgery compared with watching prerecorded videos on YouTube or elsewhere, she said.

— Live Science

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