Tweeting Surgery: Latest In Long Tradition Of Medical Voyeurism

This article is more than 9 years old.

Updated at 3:05 p.m., February 28, 2012

On the morning of February 22, a surgeon suited up for the operating room. There was the usual washing of hands and donning of scrubs. But there was also a helmet camera. And this announcement:

Today, we provide an educational inside look into a common double bypass #surgery with live video and pics #MHopenheart

Yes, that's the hospital's Twitter handle. And yes, they live tweeted open heart surgery, marking the first Twittercast for this surgical procedure.

At Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital in Houston, Dr. Michael Macris, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, operated as his colleague Dr. Paresh Patel live tweeted for hours, documenting everything — and I do mean everything.

Here's an example of one of the videos that was tweeted out. A note of caution: the imagery in this video is very graphic. If you can't bear the sight of an artery being cut open, don't click play.


In case you missed it, all the tweets and photos and videos from the surgery have been consolidated in a Storify timeline, First Live Tweet of an Open Heart Surgery. Goodbye, hashtag searching.

Social Media — A New Operating Room Staple

Open heart surgery is the latest in a growing assortment of surgical procedures that have been making their social media debuts. Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit started the tweeting trend in January 2009 with a robotic surgery on a cancerous bladder. The idea took off. Kidney transplants, knee replacements, hysterectomies, even brain surgeries — all have been live tweeted.

The practice got popular enough to get a spot on Grey's Anatomy in February of last year:

But all this reminds me of a time way before social media. Before computers. Heck, even before the development of germ theory and the sterilization of medical equipment.

I'm talking the 1800s here.

Before There Was Twitter, There Was Stadium Seating

Pennsylvania Hospital (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-70652)
Pennsylvania Hospital (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-70652)

In 1804, the Pennsylvania Hospital built its surgical amphitheatre, now the oldest in the country. Surgical amphitheatres were used as teaching tools — but also as entertainment.

The Pennsylvania Hospital's amphitheatre stood three stories tall and was nearly just as wide in diameter. On a packed day, nearly 300 people could be jammed into a space that was designed to seat roughly half that number. Here's an excerpt from the hospital's virtual exhibit: was often over-crowded when an unusual operation or particularly popular lecturer was scheduled. Since the skylight was initially the only source of lighting, operations were scheduled for mid-day and preferably during clear weather. Procedures were performed in an unsterile environment, since the sterile technique was not mandatory in American hospitals until the turn of the century (1900). In addition, until about 1840, operations were performed without the benefit of anesthesia; patients were given a choice of opium, liquor or a knock on the head with a mallet to render them unconscious.
Did you get that last sentence? No anesthesia.

The hospital's virtual tour explains how the word got out:
Medical students and locals paid to observe the surgical procedures. Posters were placed around town to notify the public of the procedures being performed and the surgeons in attendance.

Medicine And Media

(Stephan Geyer/Flickr)
(Stephan Geyer/Flickr)

We may no longer have posters advertising the Friday afternoon amputation, but we do have email alerts and constant feeds on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. We may not have to elbow our way into standing room like the patrons of the surgical amphitheatres of yore, but we we do make the best use of technology at our fingertips.

With nearly half of the U.S. population owning smartphones, two-thirds using social networking sites, and 80% of internet users looking for health information online, it's no surprise that the tradition of medical voyeurism would find its newest reincarnation in social media. If you have network access, you have a ticket to the operating room.

You also have a direct line, via comment or tweet, to those in the operating room. Here's a request that was tweeted in the middle of last week's open heart surgery:

more pictures please!!! I can't watch videos right now!!!

By encouraging this kind of dialogue, social media is redefining medical voyeurism. We are no longer simply passive voyeurs; we are engaged participants.

Wanting More?

If all this has piqued your interest, you can watch hour-long surgery videos compiled by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. The videos are produced by ORLive — the name says it all. In fact, if you don't have any plans Tuesday night, watch their live video stream of a total knee replacement. Dinner and a surgery, anyone?

This program aired on February 28, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.