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Live-Tweeting a Surgery: Social Media’s Big Moment in Healthcare?

May 24, 2013
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This week, I had the pleasure of watching a stand-up comedy performance from Louis CK. He is one of the best active comedians alive and there are bits of wisdom in a lot of what he says.

So when CK (real name Louis Szekely) started railing on Twitter, I couldn’t help but listen. This wasn’t some pretentious lecture from some professor on NPR, citing a study that says people are less intelligent thanks to Twitter. This was Louis CK. There are not too many comedians I pay to see, but for CK, I’ve done it multiple times.

Since the language CK uses is not what I’d call “family-friendly,” I’ll summarize his point. He says too many people today are way too obsessed with experiencing life through their phones. Too many events are live-tweeted rather than enjoyed. We need to tell people what we’re doing, rather than just doing it.

Obviously, this is not a fresh take. I’ve heard the same thing several times before, from multiple different people. In fact, a few weeks ago I kind of wrote something about it. However, coming from CK, whose main audience is the people he was making fun of in this bit, it got my attention.

What’s the point of this? In fact, I’ve said that to myself multiple times when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, and any platform which has the main (unintended) purpose of boosting our feelings of self-worth. Does it serve a useful purpose?

Most of the time? No, it really doesn’t. However, there are occasional moments where social media does something really cool. Whether it’s helping people during and after a natural disaster or uniting citizens in the name of democracy, it’s not all mindless self-promotion.

Recently, I saw something that showed the true potential social media. A team of UCLA Health System brain specialists decided to live-tweet an awake surgery to implant a brain pacemaker. The patient, Brad Carter, an actor, musician and stand-up comedian, had developed hand tremors in 2006 and lost the ability to perform.

Under the hashtag, #UCLAORLive, they tweeted live short videos of the surgery being done. While it was being done, Carter played the guitar, showing off his much improved dexterity. The UCLA Health System tweeted the entire surgery, six hours in total. The tweeting was an effort to help reduce future patients' fear of the procedure.

I recommend checking out the UCLA Health twitter feed because the entire thing is on there. It’s pretty cool.

Many hospitals and healthcare organizations are still struggling to understand and use social media. In a talk I had with Laura Kreofsky, principal at the Naperville, Ill.-based consulting firm, Impact Advisors, she said this is chiefly because of security concerns and the fear that such use would lead to an overstepping of the patient-doctor relationship. As I mentioned on a previous blog, these are very valid concerns.

The slowed adoption of social media from a provider setting also comes because it moves healthcare away from a traditional provider-patient relationship, Kreofsky says. “It moves away from the relationship building that providers need and want… that physical presence,” she said.  

Yet, there is a way to use this platform effectively.  Kreofsky says using for Twitter for marketing and education purposes can be done in a way that helps patients and drives engagement.

“What social media does is introduce the patient to one level of interaction with their healthcare provider. The next step is connecting them with their PHR or portal. Social media starts to introduce the concept of online interaction between provider and patient,” Kreofsky says.

Hopefully more healthcare organizations will understand that better as time goes on. Meanwhile, thank God for the UCLA Health Systems of the world. It’s organizations like this that are giving Twitter, Facebook, and all of these social media platforms a good name, showing how they can be used the right way, and making me feel a little less bad about using them.

Thoughts? Feel free to leave comments below or respond to me on Twitter by following me at @HCI_GPerna.