Why Doctors Are Tweeting During Surgery

Hospitals are using Twitter to teach and share information about operations.

ByKATE SNOW via logo
April 15, 2009, 9:59 PM

April 16, 2009 — -- Social networking has hit the operating room.

Imagine tweeting about a double-knee replacement in Wisconsin. As you watch, you can send in your questions.

It's no dream; this is a reality as the medical arena makes health care more interactive.

"I think it's a unique opportunity to explore innovative ways to communicate with patients and alleviative fears they may have about joint-replacement surgery," said Dr. Joel Wallskog, an orthopedic surgeon at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee.

Wallskog will conduct a knee-replacement surgery today in Wisconsin when the first health care system in the state gives live updates on a surgery via Twitter . Starting at 8 a.m. CT, nearly anyone who belongs to Twitter can follow Wallskog as he replaces a woman's knee.

But they're not the first in the nation.

By one estimate, more than 100 hospitals have some kind of Twitter account and 82 hospitals have Facebook pages.

Deb Borchert had her uterus removed earlier this month at Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill. Little did she know her surgery would become an Internet sensation.

Borchet had no problem when the doctors asked her if it would be all right to use Twitter to communicate with the outside world during the robotic surgery, which is a fairly cutting-edge procedure that is minimally invasive and requires less recovery time than traditional hysterectomy surgery.

"I think that's a great idea, because if there's another woman out there who has that option [of robotic surgery] and it helps her to go this way, that's a great opportunity," Borchert said.

Twitter Teaching

All the tweeting about procedures is not just helpful for potential patients. Surgeons are also using Twitter as a teaching tool.

Three surgeons rotated between working on a patient and hovering over a computer screen in Detroit last month, typing answers to questions sent in by medical students via Twitter. They were performing a complicated open-brain surgery.

From thousands of miles away, students asked about the techniques used, whether the patient felt any pain, the music they were listening to in the room.

At one point, an observer wrote and asked, "Shouldn't these surgeons be operating rather than tweeting?"

The answer from the doctors: "At any given point, there is a very senior team with the patient [eight total], and whichever one of us is not doing surgery at that particular moment, we jump on the live feed."

Dr. Steve Kalkanis, one of the team surgeons, said, "There's a whole new generation of medical students and residents coming of age around the country, and it's a generation skilled in instant interactive interpersonal communication and feedback, and I think that if medical education is going to be as relevant and effective as possible, it needs to keep pace with this new standard."

That's precisely why the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota had something called a "tweet camp" Wednesday to bring doctors, nurses and staff up to speed on Twitter and other new social networking technology.

Mayo Clinic Embraces Social Networking

The Mayo Clinic was one of the earliest medical centers to embrace social networking and now it has a full-time staffer who spends most of the day dedicated to the task.

The clinic uses sites like You Tube, Twitter and Facebook to reach potential patients.

"Word of mouth, in terms of awareness for Mayo, is the most important factor," said the clinic's Lee Aase, who's head of online outreach. "We haven't done any advertising, so from a marketing perspective, word of mouth has been for the past 100 years the reason we have a quarter of patients coming from over 500 miles away, which we need to do here since we're in a cornfield in the middle of Minnesota."

The possibilities for social networking and medicine seem endless.

New Yorker Corey Menscher's wife was expecting a baby so he invented a device on a belt that he asked his wife Ellen to wear. Every time the baby kicked, the device would send an instant message to his phone using Twitter. "The baby just kicked," it would say.

"It was amazing," he said. "I would get a random text message and thought it was a friend, but it was my baby."

And gone may be the days of waiting hours for the doctor to see you.

Doctor-to-Patient Tweeting

Patients are communicating with their physicians on social networking sites. A doctor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago keeps tabs on his patients through Facebook. He said a flight attendant who recently had an aneurysm removed has been sending him messages from various cities, updating him on how she's feeling.

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