Lisette Voytko.

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Why medicine and social media need each other

Via Tumbleweed Marketing Analytics

In the United States, it largely appears that the topic of “health” is divided into two camps:

  • The latest fad diet (Atkins, the Cleanse, etc.)
  • The latest fad exercise (Tai Bo, Zumba, etc.)

The idea of “medicine” in American health has become entertainment, and practically a spectator sport. Channels like TLC air reality medical programming such as “Untold Stories of the E.R.” The mid-2000’s had an obsession with plastic surgery, resulting in more reality shows (“The Swan”, “I Want A Famous Face”) as well as medical dramas (“Nip/Tuck”). Even sitcoms got in on the action, with “Scrubs” running for nine seasons. Of course, I can’t briefly summarize American medical television without tipping my hat to “E.R.”, the seminal medical drama that made every hospital everywhere wish for a George Clooney to call their own.

Clearly, the American public is clamoring for this type of programming. I worry, however, about the accuracy of medical dramas and sitcoms. In 2005, Slate ran this piece entitled “Paging Dr. Welby- The medical sins of Grey’s Anatomy”. The article cites egregious errors in medical process and policy, ranging from organ donation to autopsy. 

It’s generally gauche to discuss one’s medical history without the safe confines of TLC’s interview sets, but this is relevant to the task at hand. See, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in doctor’s offices, and it all started when I was born.

I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a type of congenital heart disease. Here’s the MayoClinic’s definition of my condition:

Tetralogy of Fallot (teh-tral-uh-je ov fuh-LOE) is a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth. These defects, which affect the structure of the heart, cause oxygen-poor blood to flow out of the heart and into the rest of the body.

I had surgery to correct my Tetralogy when I was just ten months old. I had an excellent repair, which has been commented on by the various cardiologists I’ve seen throughout my life. I’m very lucky; I have no restrictions on physical activity, and I live a completely normal life. Stretches of time go by where I forget I’ve had surgery, and am only reminded when I glimpse the chest scar from my incision in a mirror.

But in a world where the medical profession is mined to write entertaining TV in order to garner high ratings and then line network execs’ pockets with money, the truth of what occurs in the operating room stays in the operating room.

Everything I know about my surgery I know second-hand from my parents. My parents, who aren’t medical professionals, only have information they were given at the time. Here’s what my mother told me via email this morning:

It was a big deal because Dr. Karp* (University of Chicago -Ed.) did the surgery. He had developed a technique to correct all the defects in one surgery - which spared you subsequent surgeries. The amphitheater was full and you had many doctors assisting. One doc just did the pulse on your feet.  He came in a few times before the surgery to practice.

Yes, you read that correctly. ONE DOCTOR FOR JUST MY FEET. That’s hardcore.

Contrast my mother’s story with this Grey’s Anatomy clip from YouTube. Sandra Oh’s character Christina performs surgery on a patient who starts crashing mid-operation. Another surgeon idly stands by reading a magazine, trying to prove a point to Christina, rather than being MEDICALLY RESPONSIBLE AND PROFESSIONAL by stepping in to save the patient’s life. Imagine if you were the patient. It’s disgusting and terrifying

This is why we need more hospitals like Houston, TX’s Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital. On February 21st, Mashable reported that surgeon Dr. Michael Macris performed a successful double-coronary artery bypass on a 57-year-old patient. His colleague Dr. Paresh Patel live-tweeted the entire surgery via the @houstonhospital Twitter account. This is the first time in history a open-heart surgery has been live-tweeted.

The tweeted procedure includes photos and videos (NSFW or the faint of heart. See what I did there? -Ed.), which can be viewed in a Storify story created by the hospital. 

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough to watch, but it’s highly educational. More importantly, it’s 100% true, unlike medical drams/reality shows. The hospital reported they reached 225,000 viewers through the live-tweeted surgery. It may not be the same record-breaking ratings that “E.R” received, but it’s a start.

Medicine can only benefit from this kind of transparency, to counteract the “pop culture-ing” of itself in American entertainment. I would love to see more procedures in various parts of medicine documented in social media. These kinds of broadcasts would help demystify medicine for the average citizen, for example.

My only concerns have to do with security, which in this case is twofold. Security for the patient being one, and security for the hospital being another. What kinds of releases or disclaimers do patients have to sign before participating in a social media broadcast of their surgeries? And for hospitals, are there different kinds of protections or insurances in the event a patient dies or experiences complications in one of these broadcasts?

In the end, however, a person in Houston, TX has a repaired heart. The Internet at large now has access to a complete open-heart surgery. And all of us have benefited from it. 

* I never met Dr. Robert B. Karp after my surgery was performed. A Google search informed me he passed away in 2006. I regret I never got to say ‘thank you’ in person, so this will have to do for now. Thanks, Dr. Karp.

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