In an essay highlighting the History of Surgery, Dr. Atul Gawande references a journal published in 1812 that “gives a sense of the constraints faced by surgeons ... in the era before anesthesia and antisepsis.” Two hundred years ago, surgeons struggled at the most basic level to keep their patients alive. Since that era, the field has come a long way. While there are still many risks involved in surgery, Twitter’s 140 character limit may be one of the biggest constraints faced by surgeons today.
On Wednesday morning, Dr. Dong Kim and his neurosurgery team at Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston, Texas removed a tumor from the brain of a 21-year old woman, while live tweeting the details of each incision from start to finish. Yesterday, these surgeons made history.
This procedure was the first brain surgery to be live tweeted, but the second surgical procedure to be tweeted by surgeons at the Houston facility. The first surgical Twittercast, a double-coronary artery bypass, was performed this past February in honor of Heart Month. The Twitter feed documenting the bypass surgery has drawn approximately 125 million views from people all over the world thus far, and yesterday’s brain surgery Twittercast has the potential to draw even
more. According to Dr. Kim, the purpose of yesterday’s tweeting was to “educate the general public about brain tumors and take them into the OR to see what happens during a brain surgery.”
Advances in technology have not only influenced developments in medicine, but also enhanced the way we learn about medicine and connect with physicians. Yesterday’s Twittercast helped educate the general public and democratized the experience of being in the OR for students like me.
As a first year medical student, I’ve observed a handful of surgeries. (And by “observed,” I mean that I have stood silently in the back of an operating room admiring the back of the surgeon’s head.) While I’m thankful for any opportunity to be in the OR, I haven’t really gained much from my time spent there, because I cannot see the surgical field, let alone interrupt the surgeons to ask questions. Yesterday, however, I felt like I had scrubbed in with Dr. Kim. Even though I was one of many Twitter followers observing in the OR, I felt like I had a front row seat because the tweets were illustrated by short YouTube clips and photographs. The medical team even fielded questions by interested followers. When has it ever been possible to engage with surgery like this before? Unless you are actually training to be a surgeon, it really hasn’t.
While some people think Twitter is a distraction and would prefer to keep it out of the OR, I believe that the presence of this technology will allow for the expansion of the space in which medical trainees and other interested individuals can learn. The Latin root of the word “doctor” means “teacher.” Doctors are constantly training younger physicians and teaching each other how to better the practice of medicine. As long as physicians use social media responsibly, Twitter has the potential to enhance what they are already doing. So I say, tweet away. Besides, tweeting is the easy part. It’s not like it’s brain surgery.