Issue 2 / 12 July 2010

When surgeon Craig Rogers, Director of Robotic Renal Surgery at the Vattikuti Urology Institute at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, set out to remove a patient’s renal tumour, his plan was to do everything he could to save the organ.

But he was temporarily taken aback when he saw the size of the growth. “Gosh, this is big,” he said to his colleagues in theatre.

And his surgical assistant immediately shared the surgeon’s doubts with the world, broadcasting on social networking site Twitter: “Dr Rogers is saying because the tumour is so large he may have to do a radical nephrectomy.”

Sounds like fantasy? No, it happened in a US hospital last year. And, since then, other hospitals in that country have followed suit, “live tweeting”, blow-by-blow updates on surgical procedures to all and sundry.

If you’re not up to speed with the Twitterverse, what that means is sending out a series of updates the length of a mobile phone text message that can be read by anybody who chooses to follow them on the social networking site.

The hospitals and doctors involved argue it’s a good way of educating the general public and other doctors about medical procedures and that it also provides a service to patients’ families.

Instead of sitting in the cafeteria drinking too much coffee, they can follow the progress of the operation on a TV screen and receive instant reassurance once it has been successfully completed.

That’s assuming it is successfully completed, of course.

You have to wonder what the resident would do if the patient went into cardiac arrest — tweet that to the waiting family? Or would the screen just go blank, leaving the relatives to wonder what had happened?

There’s no doubt patients and their families expect to be kept informed more these days than they might have in the past, and that new technology offers innovative ways of doing that.

But are live tweets from theatre really the best approach? And is sending them out the best use of a doctor’s time?

Some critics have suggested the whole thing might have more to do with hospitals marketing their services in the competitive US health care market than with patient welfare, and you do have to wonder.

Not to mention the privacy issues and the question of whether a patient could really give informed consent to such public exposure.

Could it happen here?

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor magazine. Her book, The Sex Factory, on the science of sex and gender will be published by UNSW Press later this year.

3 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Is intraoperative twittering a step too far?

  1. Mike cadogan says:

    Thanks Jane
    I agree, it is a worry for Australia – but hopefully we will learn form the mistakes of our US counterparts on this one.
    The uptake of twitter and ‘social medicine’ within the Australian medical community has been incredibly slow, and is unlikely to see the exponential growth witnessed in other countries.
    At least this should give us the chance to define some self-regulatory parameters to facilitate a less controversial entry into the sphere of social medicine…should Aussie practitioners ever choose to embark on such a perilous mission!

  2. Jane McCredie says:

    Interesting, Mike. Why do you think Australian doctors have been slower to take up “social medicine” than those in other countries?

  3. Steve Hambleton says:

    The trouble is, in the heat of the moment one might tweet something that with a bit more thought would have never left your finger tips. Part of the art of communicating is knowing when not to communicate.

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