The New York Times: Live Surgical Webcasts Play to Potential Patients
July 6, 2005 Health Article by BARNABY J. FEDER
MEDICAL advertising tends to involve glowing testimonials from fit-looking former patients, or commercials describing vague health problems that sign off with "Ask your doctor if our drug is right for you." Hospitals broadcast images of state-of-the-art facilities, eminent doctors and attentive nurses.
But slp3d, a small Webcasting specialist in West Hartford, Conn., is demonstrating that there is a small but avid audience for far more realistic and detailed information about medical treatments.
Slp3d began marketing its live Webcasts from hospital operating rooms as an educational tool that would allow top surgeons to lecture far-flung doctors in the same branch of medicine. These days, though, when doctors are appearing on slp3d's Web site, www.OR-live.com, the expectation is that a majority of the audience will be potential patients.
"About 70 percent of the viewers are consumers," said Ross Joel, executive vice president for sales and marketing at slp3d.
The Webcasts last an hour or more. They often feature complex operations like heart valve replacements and organ transplants, and they can showcase new medical devices. Some procedures focus on life-threatening conditions, but viewers have also seen surgeons deal with torn rotator cuffs, degenerated knees, varicose veins and excess folds of skin left after gastric bypass surgery for weight loss.
The patients give their permission to be shown in the Webcasts, which still retain their original educational function in most cases. They often include taped segments that have been prepared in cooperation with accredited medical schools. Specialists can serve as hosts and field questions that have been e-mailed during the procedure.
Doctors who log in can take an online quiz at the end to receive continuing education credits. And anyone who has downloaded RealPlayer, a free video software program, is able to log in and send questions without charge.
Slp3d, originally known as Storyline Productions, now markets its ability to build Internet audiences along with its production skills. By sending listings of future operations to chat rooms and relevant Web sites, slp3d and its clients regularly attract hundreds and in some cases thousands of potential patients and their loved ones to the operations. Even larger numbers have viewed archived Web broadcasts that are available at OR-live.com and other medical sites.
"The ripple effects of Webcasting are pretty broad," said Jill Fazakerly, marketing director for Methodist Healthcare, which puts online four operations a year from Methodist University Hospital in Memphis. The budget - well over $100,000 - is roughly the same that Methodist devotes to a promotional campaign on a Memphis television station on which it broadcasts "health care minutes" three days a week.
Other Slp3d customers include Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston.
Slp3d charges $35,000 to $40,000 for the Webcasts, which the hospitals are willing to pay if they think doctors will refer patients to them as a result. And consumers thinking about getting treatment may decide they want the doctors on the computer screens to provide it.
Methodist University Hospital said it received 80 inquiries from potential patients after its Webcast showing a device that allows surgeons to repair a spinal disk hernia through a thumbnail-size incision in the lower back.
With Webcasting, of course, there is the risk that the operation may not go as planned. Last September, for example, a broadcast from Italy to cardiologists meeting in Washington showing a new procedure to insert an aortic heart valve in an elderly woman was terminated when problems arose. She died soon afterward. Cardiologists at the meeting, who were aware that the procedure was a last resort for a patient believed to be too frail to survive regular surgery, said they did not view the result as a public relations disaster for the Italian cardiologist or the manufacturer of the new valve.
But consumers, especially those with the medical condition on display, may not be so forgiving. Thus slp3d and the hospitals have been Webcasting procedures that are relatively new but less daring than those seen at medical conferences. Mr. Joel said excessive bleeding in one case and the discovery of a tumor during a diagnostic procedure were the only instances of Webcasts featuring unexpected drama.
Mr. Joel said that slp3d's revenues are growing at about 40 percent and should top $6 million this year. To push sales, slp3d has begun marketing its Webcasts to device makers as well as hospitals. Medtronic's heart valve division, for example, has sponsored five Webcasts.
John Mack, senior director of marketing for the division, said the Webcasts attracted viewers that the company would not have thought to invite to a normal product demonstration, including patients and cardiologists who do not work with the devices themselves but want to know more about them.
In addition to archiving the Webcasts, Medtronic makes CD's of them that it gives to its sales representatives. Its sales personnel in Europe often invite customers to watch the live Webcasts originating in the United States.
"It's a small part of our marketing budget but it's very strategic," Mr. Mack said.
From The New York Times on the Web (c) The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission