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Tweeting Surgeries May Lead to Improved Doctor-Family Communication

Marianne Aiello, May 22, 2009

"Dr. Desai is unclamping the vein and the kidney is pinking up," Children's Medical Center Dallas wrote on Twitter at 12:12 a.m. CST on Monday. Two minutes later the surgical team posted another update. "The kidney is making urine. Everyone in the OR is excited!"

The medical center posted live updates on Twitter, or "tweeted", throughout a pediatric kidney transplant. It is one of the most recent healthcare organizations to tweet live during surgery—a growing trend in hospitals that started when Henry Ford Health System in Detroit tweeted a robotic partial nephrectomy on February 9, garnering the organization a great deal of media coverage. Children's, too, has seen its fair share of mainstream press coverage, including mentions in USA Today and on Fox News.

But neither publicity nor increasing patient volume was one of the medical center's reasons for tweeting the surgery, says Betsy MacKay, Children's vice president of public affairs.

"This particular family is young and they had a very strong desire to promote the importance of organ donation," she says. "We know that we have one of the nation's best programs and certainly we want those families that need us to know about us, but generating volume was definitely not a motive."

While hospitals that tweet during surgeries may not see an increase in patient traffic, it does help improve their public perception by taking some of the mystery out of the OR, says Christopher Boyer, online marketing specialist at HealthGrades.

"Consumers have become more intimate about how healthcare works because they want to take ownership of their healthcare," he says. "Twitter really breaks that barrier right down in the surgical suite."

During Children's Monday kidney transplant, a nurse and public affairs team members wrote the tweets to ensure that they were both clinically accurate and easy for the general public to understand.

"I think that as we in the healthcare business become more transparent in what we do, and as consumers grab responsibility for their healthcare decisions more and more, that straight-from-the-OR kind of dialogue is really useful," MacKay says. "I think it's very comforting to someone who might be facing this to take the mystery away so they can peek behind the curtain a little bit and see how routine this [type of surgery] is."

Though public interest in tweeted surgeries may wan as the novelty wears off, MacKay says she thinks Twitter may be a useful tool for OR staff to communicate with patients' families.

Boyer also says he believes Twitter will be useful to patients' families, but has lower expectations for tweeted surgeries' long-term popularity with the public.

"Long term it's only going to be important to the family members," he says. "The big problem with it is there's all these additional resources needed to enable that and I don't see it as operationally sound. This is an embrace of a new way to real time communicate with people, but it's not strategically aligned."


Marianne Aiello is an editor with HealthLeaders Media. She may be reached at maiello@healthleadersmedia.com.

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