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Twin Cities hospitals are helping pioneer a digital version of the old-time operating amphitheater -- live surgical webcasts that educate and attract potential patients.

Dr. Dan Hoeffel (left center, with hood) chose his surgical implements during a live webcast of knee replacement surgery Tuesday. Orthopedic physician assistant Marcia Running, left, and surgical tech Rhonda Jarnot, right, worked with the doctor as OR-Live photographer Tony Johnson ran the camera.

Darlene Prois - Star Tribune
O.R. online

Dr. Daniel Hoeffel isn't shy, and he's an expert in knee replacement surgery. Still, there was a twinge of nerves when he lifted his scalpel Tuesday to begin an otherwise routine procedure at Woodbury's Woodwinds Health Campus.
The whole world might have been watching.

A live, interactive webcast Tuesday featured Hoeffel performing the operation. Ear buds and a microphone were hidden beneath his sterile scrubs, enabling him to field real-time questions e-mailed from around the globe and relayed to him by staff members. His partner, Dr. Jack Drogt, offered play-by-play commentary from a nearby room.

The hospital, part of the HealthEast Care System, is one of about 40 hospitals nationwide working with a Connecticut-based website called OR-Live to pioneer a unique type of reality programming-- live surgical webcasts that educate and attract potential patients.

"This is the 21st century equivalent of the early surgical amphitheater," Hoeffel said.

"We sometimes undersell the importance of having others being able to see things done by an expert," he said. "We can beam this to Australia, to Hong Kong, to Paris. No longer is it an 18-hour plane flight and fighting a language barrier to learn how to do things."

HealthEast's four Twin Cities hospitals are the only ones in Minnesota currently involved with the OR-Live website. According to HealthEast officials, the webcasts are also good for business.

"There are more and more people using the web to research and seek treatment," said Brenda Beukelman, HealthEast's marketing director. "When they know HealthEast does these procedures, they're inclined to seek us out."

This was the second of four live surgical webcasts sponsored by HealthEast to showcase key procedures at its hospitals. Last October, potential patients from as far away as Brazil and Japan and as close as White Bear Lake and Eden Prairie viewed HealthEast's first live webcast, an innovative kidney stone removal technique performed by Dr. Andrew Portis. The live webcast from HealthEast's Kidney Stone Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul drew 1,600 viewers.

"It surprised me that many people would take time out of the middle of their day to watch kidney stones," Beukelman said.

Even more impressive was the interest generated by the surgery at the website, where computer users can call up archived webcasts and watch them for free. An additional 4,700 people have watched the procedure there since it was performed, and 45 doctors or patients have contacted the hospital for more information.

Slp3D, the Connecticut company that produces the webcasts, began marketing webcasts as educational tools for doctors in 1998. Now, as many as 60 percent of viewers are consumers, according to Peter Gailey, the firm's executive vice president for development.

Last year, the company produced close to 200 Internet surgeries. While its major client base is about 40 hospitals, it also includes pharmaceutical and insurance companies as well as device manufacturers, such as Medtronic Inc. of Fridley, which has five archived webcasts on the site. Each webcast costs between $35,000 to $50,000 -- typically paid by whoever commissions it -- to produce and promote.

Even though the hospital isn't sure anyone has booked a kidney stone surgery as a direct result of the October webcast, Beukelman is confident that the investment will pay off. One patient has already signed up for joint-replacement surgery after reading informational material online about a webcast, and an additional 34 have made appointments or requested more information. Even before the first cut was made, there were 7,200 hits to the Woodwinds website to learn more about the surgery.

A minimally invasive spine surgery will be featured next month from St. John's Hospital in Maplewood.

Innovations featured

HealthEast isn't the first Minnesota health care organization to have a specialized operation featured in an webcast. A November 2004 production at St. Cloud Hospital highlighted a new procedure in minimally invasive hip surgery performed by Dr. Joseph Nessler. In that case, it was the newness and effectiveness of the procedure that Stryker Orthopaedics, a medical device company, wished to publicize. The hospital's contribution to the cost of the webcast was only about $1,500 in staff time, but the effect of the exposure has been far-reaching.

More than 20 out-of-state patients, as well as two from the Netherlands and Mexico, have traveled to St. Cloud for similar surgeries.

Surgeon up to challenge

Dr. Hoeffel enjoyed being in the surgical spotlight during Tuesday's webcast. He kept an assured dialogue running throughout the cutting, drilling and sawing, carefully explaining each part of the procedure.

"The adrenaline is flowing. Absolutely," he said. "This isn't for everyone, but for me, the whole world slows down and I see things very clearly, believe it or not."

There were no surgical surprises during the hourlong webcast. "Going into surgery any day is like being on a stage," he said. "You only have one chance to get it right."

Darlene Prois, Star Tribune, May 17, 2006

Click here to view this webcast.

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