Instant Information: The Real Appeal of Social Networking

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media, February 17, 2009

For people who have followed the evolution of social networking sites, Henry Ford Health System's use of Twitter to provide real-time surgical updates from the operating room has made Health 2.0 history.

Last week's robotic partial nephrectomy was actually the second surgery that was blogged live by the Detroit-based system. In January, Henry Ford surgeons performed robotic surgery to a remove a cancerous bladder while simulcasting live to a symposium the hospital had organized in Las Vegas and blogging the surgery on Twitter, an increasingly popular micro-blogging site that limits users to writing posts of 140 character or less.

General curiosity aside, one reason the Henry Ford Twitter surgeries have garnered so much attention is the educational possibilities they bring to light for medical students, providers, and the public. Bill Ferris, Web services manager at Henry Ford, who helped set up the live Twittering, says the hope is that Twitter will eventually be used as an educational tool for medical students and residents learning about specialized medical procedures.

"We saw this as a great opportunity for medical students and doctors to be able to interact live, even if at 140 characters at a time, with the surgeon in the operating room. With this second surgery we saw an increase in followers from physicians and patients and a greater mix of questions. Some about robotic surgery in general, some specific questions about the case. Overall we see it as an effective way to interact with the surgeons as they perform the procedure," says Ferris, who says the hospital also plans to delve into another form of social networking by launching a Facebook page at some point in the near future.

"Right now we are just trying to figure out how it would fit into our strategy. We're looking at a lot of options: Hospital communications, a patient support group, another way for hospital staff to connect, a recruiting tool. There's a lot to consider," he says.

So how does a Twittered surgery work? In this case, the primary surgeon, Craig Rogers, MD, sits at a terminal guiding a robot from a remote console about eight feet from the patient. The entire surgical procedure is being displayed in 3-D on large monitors in the OR, so the person doing the Twittering, Rajesh Laungani, MD, chief resident of urology at Henry Ford Hospital, can give Twitter followers a play-by-play of the surgical action.

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