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To Draw Patients, Hospitals Webcast and Twitter Surgeries BY LAUREN UZDIENSKI, MAY 26, 2009

As hospitals face uphill battles on funding and reimbursement, some centers have adopted high-tech ways of reaching out to potential patients, including webcasting surgeries and twittering. In cases cited by the New York Times, Methodist University Hospital in Memphis broadcast a craniotomy online and surgeons from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit twittered through the removal of a kidney.

While this unconventional marketing tactic raises some concerns, including patient privacy and insufficiently conveying surgical risks, Methodist reports that the response from its craniotomy webcast has been positive. The hospital says that 2,212 people have watched the webcast, 21,555 have viewed a YouTube preview and three requested appointments. While there's no similar hard data on Twitter's effect, hospitals are taking it seriously, with Scripps Health searching daily for its name in the Twitter-sphere and tweeting those who write about them. Some patients blog about their procedures for hospitals. Overall, it's estimated that about 250 hospitals use YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or blogs to target new patients, and a healthcare consultant quoted by the Times says this reflects more a savvy consumerism, addressing patients inclined to shop for the best care.

Direct-to-consumer marketing has been a source of controversy in the medical device industry for the past several years, resulting in repeated calls from physicians and consumer groups for more oversight of ads directed at patients. Most of this pressure has fallen to the FDA in their regulation of devices and marketing materials. Hospitals have no comparable level of oversight; they're largely managed on the state level (though Joint Commission accreditation is required for receiving Medicare and Medicaid payments), and there appears to be little formal process for ensuring the scientific integrity of marketing campaigns. A 2005 paper published in the Archives of Internal Medicine surveyed top U.S. research institutions and found that, typically, no one outside the hospital's marketing department reviewed promotional materials.

There have been notable cases of public backlash over hospital marketing. In one example, Kaiser Permanente was successfully sued by a number of consumer groups over misleading ads. A hospital's internet presence, which is harder to control than a traditional print campaign, may increase the center's exposure to legal action. As social networking sites proliferate and play an increasingly relevant role in drawing patients, physicians and donors to a hospital, centers may also have to prepare for greater scrutiny of these marketing efforts.

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