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#SBheart: Benefits and ramifications of live tweeting a surgery

For the first time in Canada.

Technology has crossed yet another frontier, this time reaching out to all in the Twittersphere from an operating room in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Sunnybrook’s social media expert, along with a staff photographer joined the team of surgeons for an open-heart surgery on a 57-year old patient named Lou. They were documenting the operation step-by-step and answering questions from the public live on Twitter. This is the first time an operation was live-tweeted from a Canadian hospital. It was preceded by a hospital in Texas that also did the same for an open-heart surgery in 2012, and later that year, with a brain surgery.  This potent mix of social media and a generally covert procedure only privy to medical professionals has just spiced up the debate of how far is too far in public disclosure, and whether there even needs to be such a limit.

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There are some pros and cons about this new practice to bring awareness. Heart disease and stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. February is marked as heart awareness month. The medical community at Sunnybrook saw this as the perfect opportunity to open up the floor to questions from the public, and raise awareness of what really goes on inside the operating room. It’s not all preachy and common sense – a lot of it is new news. This information is definitely going to increase the transparency about the procedure, thus assuaging fears and misconceptions about what goes on behind those doors.  It is also most certainly going to increase the awareness about heart disease, as the old scare tactic often doesn’t work in preventing people from engaging in foolish unhealthy behaviour. While this move has received mostly positive responses, especially from med students – it does tread on some grey areas.

A good or bad thing could come out of the intensity of grief and shock to an unsuccessful operation; the family might receive support (emotional, financially etc.) that they may not have had otherwise, thus helping them in dealing with the loss. But the possible desensitization or just evasion of this community twitter feed can also occur due to the highly charged emotional aspect of an operation. A segment of the population (specifically those with no medical affiliations) can very much be turned away from this and not just due to the blood, guts & gore, but because of the sinking feeling that follows unsuccessful operation. They wouldn’t know how to deal with it as effectively as medical professionals who’ve been trained for these outcomes.

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Another absurd but plausible disadvantage to come out of tweeting a live operation could be the D-I-Y antics of some people who might start to falsely believe that they know the “ins and outs” of the procedure. The last thing chaos asks for is an angioplasty conducted with Dora Band-Aids and a butter knife. Morbid quips aside, this could also complicate murder trials with the defendant alleging treatment, and other far-fetched, but still totally plausible scenarios.

Upsetting some sensibilities, it could be taken as a breach of a sense of civility and respect; live-tweeting a surgery would be equating its magnanimity to that of other inane events that are live-tweeted (e.g. celebrity-spotting, etc.). It could be seen as de-valuing the mission. However, it’s worth noting that tweeting has interrupted several criminal offences, and using social media as an aid is not beneath the policing services, so why should the medical community be left behind?

A valid concern however, is that all the extra activity in the room (e.g. snapping pictures) could interfere with the concentration of the surgeons. They’d be unnecessarily put under more pressure to perform and this could lead to a higher chance of error.  Also, if the surgery is unsuccessful, then the “audience” might feel like an authority (which some could argue should be the case) in the investigation, and might complicate the following legal procedures without understanding completely all the statistics involved. It would be a blurred line between transparency and defamation of the doctors.

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Tweeting something like an operation is a big deal though, and following this real time does/will bring people closer. The emotional turmoil felt by the family, as well as the situation in the operation room such as the circumstances of the doctors and assistants will be shared and better understood. It’s also a true vantage point from a legal/moral perspective. The knowledge could help accelerate the long-standing debates on elephant-in-room topics in the legal assembly (e.g. euthanasia, abortion, etc.). This will educate a wider audience to both viewpoints, and hopefully bring some consensus on how to legally deal with medically-sensitive issues, rather than leaning on religious or abstract philosophical teachings. The practicality this offers in decision-making is revolutionary with this step.

On the whole, this step to further the awareness through Twitter is mostly a positive direction for all parties involved. Perhaps this could be the next reality TV show idea, or the reason a definitive bill is passed in the assembly, only time will tell.

Photo credits: Sunnybrook Hospital

About the Contributor: Oshin Manghirmalani is currently studying Business Economics and Psychology at York University. Her interests lie in cooking, helping others, and singing. She has a strong passion for travelling and has a certain love for exploring the different cities she arrives in.

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