Memorial Hospital is opening up its operating room in an online marketing campaign that aims to capitalize on Internet-savvy patients and their thirst for health information.
This week, the hospital will post on the Chattanooga Times Free Press website a recorded, edited video of an open heart surgery with narration by Dr. Richard Morrison, the thoracic surgeon who performed the procedure.
The surgeon also will sit in for a live online question-and-answer session with viewers after the webcast streams Wednesday.
"Sixty-one percent of the population goes online to research health information. ... People crave that information," said Lisa McCluskey, vice president of marketing communications for Memorial.
The 72-year-old patient, Marjorie, was suffering from a narrowed aortic valve, which put pressure on the heart as it pumped blood, Morrison said. Marjorie had struggled with normal physical activity because of the condition. During the successful surgery, her aortic valve was replaced by a valve made from bovine tissue and her mitral valve was repaired, he said.
"It's a complex operation, but it's what we and our teams do every day," Morrison said. "The worst part of surgery is the fear of the unknown, so it's nice for people to be able to see what we do and how well people do after surgery."
The four-hour surgery, filmed on three cameras, has been edited down to a 35-minute webcast, McCluskey said.
"It is graphic. It is an actual surgery and we didn't gloss over any of it," she said.
Memorial plans eventually to stream a live surgery online, depending on viewer interest.
Video webcasts of surgeries are one way hospitals are using the Internet to market their physicians and facilities directly both to patients and to potential referring doctors, according to hospital marketing directors.
Social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube have linked more viewers to online surgical videos. Online surgeries first emerged in the late 1990s within the medical community, primarily for educational purposes, and developed as a hospital marketing strategy in the early 2000s, said Ed Bennett, director of Web strategy at the University of Maryland Medical System. His health system has posted surgeries online - with great response from consumers, Bennett said - for seven years.
"It's still important, but it's nothing really new," he said.
By providing a glimpse inside the OR, hospitals hope to draw attention to their doctors' skills and personality, while signaling they are confident enough to broadcast complex procedures live, marketing experts said.
But some ethicists question whether the practice exploits patients who agree to be named but might not realize the effects of having such a revealing online presence. And some worry edited videos could give consumers a too-rosy impression of the risks inherent to surgery.
"I don't like it if they exploit identified patients," said Art Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "I don't think those patients understand [the consequences.] They're not celebrities. They tend to want to please the doctors. I think these things are best done with complete anonymity."
Memorial will only use the first names of patients featured in the videos, McCluskey said.
Marketing professor Charles D. Frame, director of the Center for Healthcare Leadership at Emory University in Atlanta, wonders if the videos could turn off some potential patients, who might be more impressed with a nice waiting room, successful outcome and responsive doctor than a graphic view of their surgical procedure.
Consumers "buy the end product - the wellness - and they're not as concerned with the process. You don't even want to see yourself getting your teeth cleaned," he said.
Bennett said many people don't want to see graphic surgeries, but others see that knowledge as power, and actively seek out videos when facing the prospect of surgery.
"They feel more comfortable the more knowledge they have about what's going to happen to them," he said.
When posted on sites such as YouTube, the videos can draw new patients who never would have surfed the hospital's website, Bennett said.
Hospitals also are posting surgery videos on the website "OR Live." The site launched 10 years ago mainly for medical professionals, but quickly drew consumer viewers, too, said Bob Oakley, the company's vice president of marketing.
Since its founding, about 120 hospitals have posted more than 800 surgeries, some of which get thousands of views. A heart transplant got 500,000 views, Oakley said.
About 40 percent of the viewers are health care consumers, Oakley said.
"People are hungry for this kind of access," he said. "Hospitals used to be the only source for this kind of information for years. That's all changed, and now [hospitals are] having to adapt."
Last year, Methodist University Hospital in Memphis posted its fifth surgery - a craniotomy - on OR Live. The video has been viewed 2,200 times since its premiere, said Megan Gatewood, marketing manager for Methodist Healthcare, the system that operates the hospital.
The most recent surgery was pre-recorded, but all other posted surgeries were performed live, starting in 2004.
"We were really looking for a way to not only connect with patients and consumers, but also with physicians, to be able to tell our story to a worldwide audience," she said.
The main benefit in terms of drawing business has come from increased notoriety among physicians, Gatewood said.
"It is elevating our referrals from other physicians throughout the country," she said.
Frame said that the guts it takes to open up the OR doors could impress a segment of consumers.
"The very fact of them putting it online is a signal. It's a signal that we're not afraid of showing you everything about who we are. ... I think maybe the actual video is secondary to the signal that posting that video sends," he said.
At Methodist, all live surgeries streamed have gone smoothly so far, Gatewood said. But in case of technical difficulties, or problems with the patient during surgery, the health system had back-up video of similar surgery that could be streamed online instead of the operating room, if needed, she said.
Gatewood said whether the hospital would inform viewers that something had gone wrong during the surgery would depend on the situation.
McCluskey of Memorial said the hospital is not yet sure how streaming a live surgery would work and what would happen if a patient took a turn for the worse.
But the idea of censoring a "live" surgery is disconcerting to ethicists.
"If you only show happy stories, happy outcomes and you self-censor anything that's negative, then it can mislead potentially," said Haavi Morreim, an ethicist at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
Contact Emily Bregel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6467.