By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
HOUSTON— Amy Shireman logged into Twitter early Wednesday to join thousands of people from 60 countries watch live something she had experienced but never seen: a baby boy delivered by cesarean section, in all its graphic imagery.
The live Twitter broadcast brought to viewers by Houston’s Memorial Hermann Health System was the medical institution’s latest foray into a growing trend to gain exposure by showing the world via social media routine procedures that happen daily in operating rooms.
While the Internet and social media have been a part of the medical industry for years, hospitals and doctors are now using it to gain leverage in a competitive market. And what better way to do that than provide people with an authentic online version of the kinds of surgeries they’ve been watching for years on fictional TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” ”House” and “ER?”
“It’s fascinating to pull back the curtain on the mystery of the OR,” said Natalie Camarata, the social media manager at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital who helped broadcast Wednesday’s C-section as well as two other procedures, including a brain surgery done by Dr. Dong Kim, who gained notoriety when he treated former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head in 2011.
Through a variety of matrices that help track online activity, Camarata estimated that 72,000 watched the C-section live on Twitter, while an additional 11,000 viewed it in another format. The viewers were from 60 countries, she said, with the most international followers coming from Germany, Norway and Israel.
During the procedure, viewers tweeted questions, and doctors or staff responded. One viewer from Norway asked about the difference in how the umbilical cord is treated in a C-section. Several tweeted congratulations. In the two hours the hospital was live, it gained more than 600 followers, dozens of them in the first few minutes. Several noted the images were gory, joking they wouldn’t watch it over breakfast.
Shireman, a 35-year-old mother of two from Pittsburgh, was intrigued to see “what was happening beyond the curtain” after having two C-sections herself.
While she had hoped the hospital would focus more on the risks, she said she would watch it again, and would consider watching other surgeries.
“The pictures of watching that baby come out of the womb were just amazing” Shireman said. “I know it was delayed a bit … but it did have that live feel like you were right there in the OR.”
Previously, when Memorial Hermann live tweeted a brain surgery, more than 235,000 watched, more than 280,000 viewed photos and video and the hospital gained 7,000 new followers. With each event, the hospital finds more and different people participating, Camarata said.
“When hospitals did it several years back, the online audience wasn’t fully engaged,” she said. “Now people are living Twitter, living Facebook. It’s part of their everyday life.”
Tyler Haney, the vice president of digital marketing at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said his hospital system has not live tweeted a surgery but also has not ruled it out.
For now, it is focusing on innovative things at the center, like providing the online audience an opportunity to interact with a brain computer interface, which increased traffic from social media outlets by 120 percent.
This trend — which the medical industry latched on to later than others — will only grow, he said, quoting statistics that found 57 percent of people saying a social media connection would have a “strong impact” on their decision to seek treatment at a given hospital.
The Mayo Clinic has been a leader in the field, said Lee Aase, the clinic’s social media director but has opted not to do live events from the OR, feeling that it is voyeuristic and does not provide additional benefits.
The clinic has focused instead on question-and-answer sessions on specific topics.
“People are taking their social network connections with them wherever they go and we certainly are seeing building interest in this,” he said.
Dr. Anne Gonzalez, one of the surgeons who participated in the C-section and is affiliated with the system’s women’s hospital, said social media helps doctors navigate a competitive market.
“There’s a lot of challenges with trying to make patients understand what you think is best for them in a very non-paternalistic way, and I think Twitter helps with that,” she said.
Swedish Health Services, which has five hospitals and more than 100 clinics in the Seattle area, recently live tweeted an ear surgery, said Dana Lewis, manager of digital marketing and internal communications, using only words and photos to reach a hearing-impaired audience.
The hospital also live tweeted a patient going through a sleep clinic and had some 10,000 people follow it in the middle of the night, she said.
“It’s about reaching people where they are, so it doesn’t make sense to have a seminar in the afternoon about not being able to sleep. Why not do it in the middle of the night … when they can’t sleep and they want to find out more about how they can get help?” Lewis said. “That’s the beauty of social media.”