Tweeting During Surgery: Education or Voyeurism?



Elizabeth Ziemba, President
Medical Tourism Training Inc.


Prestigious international medical centers including the Henry Ford Neuroscience InstituteOhio State University Medical Center, and Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital have all tweeted surgical procedures promoting the educational benefits of this use of the social media platform, Twitter. Is the sole purpose of this trend educational? Let’s take a closer look at a few examples to dissect the impact of tweeting during surgery.


Early Tweeting

In April 2009, Dr. Joel Wallskog, an orthopedic surgeon with Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, Wisconsin used tweeting while repairing arthritic knees. Dr. Wallskog narrated the two-hour surgery while a Public Relations manager sent out and responded to tweets. According to Dr. Wallskog, “I think it’s a unique opportunity to explore innovative ways to communicate with patients and alleviate fears they may have about joint-replacement surgery”[i].


One of the tweets asked, “Did you know that Dr. Wallskog, who practices in Hartford and West Bend, performs about 350 to 400 joint replacements in a given year?” As a result of the social media experiment, Aurora Health Care saw a 15% conversion from lead to customer among the people who followed the surgery on Twitter – an enviable return on investment.


Live Brain Surgery


Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital live-tweeted brain surgery in May 2012. The event attracted 14 million[ii] curious internet users who followed the 4 hour surgical procedure as well as the pre- and post-operative aspects of the surgery. According to Dr. Dong Kim, the head of the surgical team, “By sharing this experience through photos, videos and text and by being available to answer questions and comments in real time, we are opening the curtain to the OR and giving the public the knowledge and insight to make educated decisions for themselves when it comes to their choice of treatment”.[iii]


A social media team handled questions and posted tweets, videos and photos during the procedure, A hospital spokesperson stated, “Our intent is for this to be an educational opportunity for the public – for high school, college, medical students and residents, and for anyone that may ever have a brain tumor or know of someone in need of brain surgery in the future”.[iv]


(Missed the live event?  View the videos, photos and tweets from the surgery)


The surgery was a medical and social media success judging by the staggering number of internet users who undoubtedly consisted of medical and other students availing themselves of the educational experience. Surely students constituted only a portion of the 14 million internet participants. Any how many of that number were viewing because they wanted to make an educated decision about treatment of choice? Or know someone with a brain tumor or in need of brain surgery? How many were curiosity seekers?


Transparency of Motivations


These two examples and others[v] tout education as the reason for tweeting surgery. Unquestionably an educational opportunity exists for students as well as the general public to learn more about medical procedures; however, no mention is made about the promotional and marketing benefits that this trend seems to generate. Yet members of the medical centers’ public relations departments fully participated in creating and sending tweets that go beyond providing medical information. Some tweets trumpet the qualifications of the provider such as Dr. Wallskog and even offer the opportunity to schedule appointments.


Wrapping a social media campaign like live-tweeting in the cloak of education seems a bit disingenuous when medical providers are using tweeting during surgery as a way to build reputation, generate business, and grab media headlines. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with innovative media campaigns with these goals as objectives but being honest and transparent about these objectives would lend more credibility to the exercise that has an aspect of voyeurism about it.


Respond to our poll: Why tweet during surgery?


In fact, one hospital wanted to stay away from living tweeting during surgery as “We didn’t think we should tweet a surgery just for publicity’s sake”.[vi]


(Want a peak? Here’s a clip from a news report about the live-tweeted brain surgery at Henry Ford Neuroscience Institute)


The Legal Department must be going into cardiac arrest


The decision-making and planning that goes into live-tweeting during surgery is highlighted by the process followed by Ohio State University Medical Center in April 2011 when it decided to join this growing trend. It focused on a new minimally invasive procedure introduced by two physicians who had a patient willing to go along with the live-tweeting and video coverage.


The nonclinical results were impressive: 100 tweets reached 35,000 people. More than 350 people watched the U-Stream video live and another 300 (and counting) watched the archived video.[vii]


But what if something goes wrong and it seems likely that it is only a matter of “when” not “if” a live-tweeted surgery will go awry. What damage will that do to the reputation of the health care provider and surgeon? The Ohio State team had a contingency plan in place if there had been an emergency including carefully worded Tweets prepared in advance. Video streaming would stop immediately.


Impact on the Patient Experience


Live-tweeting surgery requires a patient and a patient’s family willing to engage in the process. The surgeries live-tweeted have not revealed the identities of the patients but patients could opt to provide that information. What impact, if any, does it have on a patient to be asked if the surgical procedure could be live-tweeted? Does it increase or decrease confidence in the surgeon?


A recent article in the Boston Globe, when reporting on the Houston brain surgery, asked “whether the whole enterprise serves as an unwanted distraction for the surgeon who needs to keep his focus on his patient and potential, unexpected complications”.[viii]


Would you allow your surgeon to tweet during your operation? Respond to our poll.


These and other questions will be asked and explored as the live-tweeting trend continues until the next it becomes old hat and it replaced by the next newest way to use social media to share information while building market share.



[i], accessed 22 May 2012


[ii], accessed 19 May 2012


[iii], accessed 19 May 2012


[iv], accessed 19 May 2012


[v], accessed 22 May 2012;, accessed 22 May 2012


[vi], accessed 19 May 2012


[vii], accessed 19 May 2012


[viii], accessed 22 May 2012

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