Wednesday, May 9, 2012

So Who Else Caught the Brain Surgery on Twitter Today?

If you were on twitter today, you may have seen the hashtag #MHbrain.  That stood for Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston (@houstonhospital).  Today they live-tweeted a brain surgery which removed a cavernous angioma tumor from a 21-year-old female patient.

According to the hospital's press release, the goal of the "twittercast" was to (1) educate the public about brain tumors and (2) demystify brain surgery by giving a look inside an operating room.  The surgeon, Dr. Dong Kim, added "Someone may have a loved one who is considering a similar procedure and perhaps they can glean some information from this twittercast that may help them make a decision about whether surgery is the right choice for them."

In authentic social media style, the hospital did not just send out information and images. They also had another neurosurgeon, Dr. Scott Shepard, serve as an online moderator who could respond to questions and comments from twitter followers in real time.

While there was much excitement over this event today, it is not the first time we have heard about surgeons tweeting from the operating room.  Back in 2009, CNN picked up a story about surgeons at Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan tweeting the removal of a cancerous tumor from the kidney of a male patient.  Just last February, Memorial Hermann was in the news for the first live tweeted open heart surgery.

A few thoughts on this trend:

How is Memorial Hermann evaluating their twittercast efforts?  
  • Was this a huge marketing event or do they actually have health education goals?
  • Are they simply looking at the numbers?  For example, the number of twitter followers (up to 13,400 from 5,100 in the past 3 months).  Or the number of visitors to Storify, a site which archives both the heart and brain surgeries.
  • Are the demographics of twitter users reflective of their target audience?
  • I would hope that they are thinking about how to evaluate the goals they explicitly laid out in their press release.  How will they show that a twittercast can increase knowledge about brain tumors?  How will they show that the public or potential patients have less anxiety about the procedure or choose it more often?  As always, it is important to state goals (for any public health activity) that are measurable.  
How is social media a benefit/challenge for physicians?
  • I read an interesting blog post recently called, "Why social media may not be worth it for doctors."  The author was concerned about already burned-out doctors trying to learn and make time for ever-changing technology...with no guarantee that the technology will give them "return on investment".  Do the challenges outweigh the benefits?
  • If physicians view themselves as "educators", how much value could twitter bring?
Are there patient safety or confidentiality issues that should be considered?
  • Although the patient's name was protected and she gave permission for the twittercast, is it possible that any confidential information could be accidentally shared during the event?
  • Although safeguards are in place, errors do happen in the operating room and throughout the hospital.  With the additional staff/equipment (and possible distraction?) in the operating room to conduct the twittercast, could we face an increased risk of error?
What do you think?


  1. Interesting story! I particularly love that the neurosurgeon doing the tweeting was Dr. Shepard. Was his intern Dr. Grey there? ;)

    I do share your question about whether social media is really worth it for doctors. With sky-high healthcare costs and the need to reduce overhead expenses and waste, I'm curious who was billed for the time of the physician in charge of tweeting, and who's surgery was delayed so he could do that.

    I'm also not sure that seeing live pictures from a tumor removal actually answers any important questions for patients with brain tumors. What matters is the risks, the benefits, the potential complications, the recovery process... not so much what it looks like. I could be wrong though.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! You bring up two important issues beyond what I included in the post:

      (1) Cost: In addition to your concerns, I have also seen comments on Storify asking about the patient. Was she compensated since her participation allowed this huge media event for the hospital? Was the cost of her surgery reduced or eliminated?

      (2) Content of health education messaging: I raise the question above about target audience. You go one step further and ask if what is communicated via twittercast is actually the "right" information for the stated goals. I agree- patients want to know risks vs. benefits...not what the inside of a brain looks like.

      Thank you again for sharing! Leah