Hospitals put medical skills on display with live webcasts

April 11, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

With a minute to airtime, producer-director Richard Furman peered at a bank of monitors in the control room.

"Sinus cam looks gorgeous," he advised his technicians. "Norm," he barked into his headset, "you're live."

Norm - Dr. Norman Sanders, medical director of a company that makes surgical devices - was in the operating room at Georgetown University Hospital in surgical scrubs, mask and headset. Laid out before him, however, were not surgical tools but lecture notes.

He was host of a live broadcast on the World Wide Web of a tonsillectomy operation using his company's device.

Lights. Camera. Cue the anesthesiologist.

Hospitals are increasingly producing live streaming video of their surgeries and posting them on the Internet, where they're available to anyone - sort of ER meets reality TV.

Such surgical webcasts are often a teaching tool. Doctors who watch them can generally take an exam for continuing education credit. But much of the impetus for the webcasts has come from hospital marketing departments, which believe this is a new way to build awareness of their services and attract patients.

"My goal is to gain market share, and I believe in doing it in a way that's educational," said David Brond, vice president of marketing and planning for the University of Maryland Medical System, which recently arranged a webcast of a heart valve repair.

Dozens of hospitals across the country - from renowned Massachusetts General to facilities as small as the Atlantic City Medical Center - have launched surgery webcasts. Three in the Baltimore-Washington area have started in recent months.

Medical equipment suppliers have also become involved. They sometimes underwrite productions that they feel will effectively demonstrate their product to doctors and others who might buy it. While some question whether the webcast could distract a surgeon, or at least pose such a threat, others praise the technique as an effective means to educate professionals and patients.

The payoff

While it costs about $35,000 to produce and promote a surgical webcast, "it doesn't take a whole lot of procedures to have a positive return on investment - and I anticipate we will have a positive return on investment," Brond said.

It's already paying off.

Brendan Kosowski, 37, a computer programmer from Melbourne, Australia, began to suffer shortness of breath last winter. Kosowski, a serious swimmer, learned he had a heart valve problem that would require surgery.

He typed "mitral valve repair" into Google, the Internet search engine, and discovered that the University of Maryland Medical Center Web site included footage of a heart valve repair procedure done in February.

Impressed by the surgical preview video, which included a patient describing a rapid recovery, Kosowski called the surgeon who had served as "host" of the webcast, Dr. James Gammie.

"It's a bit gory, to see the blood and all that," said Kosowski, who returned to the Web to watch the whole operation. But he was impressed that the broadcast said recovery would take a few weeks - a fraction of the time required to recover from the more invasive surgery typically used in Australia. He is considering flying to Maryland for his surgery.

After the webcast of the mitral valve repair, University of Maryland received nearly 200 e-mail messages, mostly from patients or their families interested in the procedure. Gammie, the heart surgeon who served as host of the heart valve webcast, estimated that about five patients have come through the hospital after watching webcast surgery.

Pleased with the results, the University of Maryland has scheduled another live webcast of a laproscopic surgery for gastic reflux - a type of severe heartburn - at 5:30 p.m. May 4.

Seeking `wow factor'

The push to webcast surgeries isn't just at the large urban teaching hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Community hospitals are also using cyberspace to publicize their own cutting-edge procedures.

MedStar Health, a Columbia-based health services provider, recently initiated a webcast series. It runs seven hospitals in the Baltimore area and in Washington.

Corbin Riemer, vice president for marketing at MedStar Health, chooses surgeries for broadcast that have "a bit of the `wow factor,'" he said. "For a community hospital, it's important to say, `You're getting some world-class care there.'"

At its Harbor Hospital in South Baltimore, Riemer chose a procedure in which a cancerous part of a lung was removed using three small incisions rather than one large one. Hospital surgeons say the technique greatly reduces the mortality rate from the surgery - by 80 percent. MedStar also plans a webcast of a knee operation from Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital in June.

Although the world at large can watch a webcast, the public isn't always the coveted audience. Family doctors and referring specialists often are, because their recommendations strongly influence choices about surgery.

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