Video broadcasts over the Web, known as Webcasts, can provide tremendous benefits in a wide variety of situations. At an unbelievably low cost, professors can present lectures to an unlimited number of students thousands of miles away, students who couldn't possibly afford to visit the campus. (Even if they could get there, universities would find it rather difficult to build lecture halls capable of accommodating an unlimited number of students at once. Doing so would involve playing around with the whole space/time continuum thing.) Marketers can very inexpensively provide a wealth of useful information to prospective customers who can use it to make the best possible purchasing decisions. (We marketers long to do nothing more than better serve customers and prospects and, rather than sell them things they don't need or want, make sure that customers always make purchasing decisions that will garner the greatest possible value for the customer. That is, of course, assuming that they will very richly reward us for doing so. Otherwise, the heck with them!) The possible beneficial uses of Webcasts are limited only by one's imagination. But there's one application that I think requires a little more skeptical consideration: Webcasts of surgeries.
A July 6, 2005, New York Times article talks about a company that produces live Webcasts of surgeries, including some complex operations that deal with life-threatening conditions. The broadcasts typically last an hour or more. At first, the company marketed them only as an educational tool for surgeons, but it now expects the majority of its audience to be potential patients.
I would be the first to admit that I'm a bit squeamish, probably more squeamish than most people, about medical procedures. Just to be clear on what I mean by a "bit squeamish," if there is such a thing as hellfire, I think that I'd rather eternally burn in it than be forced to look at someone's exposed internal organs.
Some people are afraid of blood, but that's not my problem. I can cut myself without passing out. I give blood on a regular basis without needing to be rushed to the hospital after the experience. Someone else can accidentally slash him or herself in front of me, and I won't bat an eye, as long as the cut doesn't go much more than skin deep. In fact, he or she might berate me for not showing sufficient concern about the blood gushing forth from them. All the same, watching a doctor expose and manipulate someone's guts would not be my first choice for entertainment. It wouldn't even make my top million list.
The company that produces these surgery extravaganzas bills hospitals $35,000 to $40,000 for each Webcast. The theory is that hospitals will make that money back from the fees that they charge to patients who request both the operations they've seen and the surgeons who performed them. This ploy is successful with some people. The New York Times reported that Methodist University Hospital said it received 80 inquiries from potential patients after it ran a Webcast highlighting a device that surgeons used to repair a spinal disk hernia through a tiny incision. But I don't think it would convince me to have the surgery.
It's akin to some ads for prescription medicines. Here in Canada, pharmaceutical companies can advertise directly to consumers only if they don't specifically mention the ailment that their products are intended to treat. Advertisers get around that restriction by, for example, producing Viagra commercials that show men dancing around triumphantly and grinning from ear to ear, without ever mentioning the cause of the men's jubilation.
Because Canadian pharmaceutical commercials are not allowed to link a product to a specific condition or cure, they are also not required to list possible side effects. Our commercials are, therefore, pretty tame. But living close to the U.S. border, we see a lot of spillover of American advertising. We'd likely be better off if that weren't the case. The drug companies would probably also be much more profitable. How anybody can buy a prescription drug after seeing one of these ads is beyond me.
You know what I'm talking about. The commercial first tells you about all of the wonderful things that a particular drug can do for you, usually showing pictures of people who appear to be far happier than you or anyone you've ever known or are ever likely to know has ever been or will ever be. Those people's happiness is, it is implied, a direct result of taking the drug. The scenes of immense beauty that these people romp through provide a stark contrast to the disheveled living room from which you watch the commercial. (OK, the disheveled part may apply more to me than to you, but you get the point.)
Then, in a quiet, calm voice, the announcer tells you that "the side effects are typically, but not even close to always, minor and infrequent. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, irritability, nervousness, excitability, depression, fits of violent rage, migraines, sleepiness, sleeplessness, sore throat, itchiness, swelling, incontinence, bleeding, boils, and slaying of the firstborn. Do not use this product if you have liver, heart, kidney, lung, sinus, ear, nose, throat, gland, or thyroid disease, appendicitis, tonsillitis, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, cancer, osteoporosis, glaucoma, flu, sniffles, or a general feeling of not being at the top of your game, or if you have difficulty urinating due to an enlargement of the prostate gland or because you can't find the restroom, or if you are elderly, young, pregnant, nursing, obese, thin, tall, short, red-haired, brown-haired, black-haired, bald, or have a first, middle, or last name beginning with "T," or if you are taking medication for high blood pressure, low blood pressure, a heart condition, a psychiatric condition, a sinus condition, a headache, or depression; in fact, if you're taking any other medication whatsoever, don't even think about coming anywhere close to this one. This drug may be taken only with a doctor's prescription. You might also want to consult your lawyer."
I don't think that I could possibly take any drug after hearing all of those warnings. Similarly, I don't think that I'd be thrilled about undergoing any incredibly gruesome surgery that I've just seen performed on a Webcast. I can't possibly imagine how you could ever make a close-up view of a complex surgery look appealing unless you precede it with a spectacular floor show that includes a lot of singing, dancing, and special effects and you hire doctors and nurses who look like they came straight from a Hollywood casting couch. Even then, I don't think that it would entice me to sign up for the surgery.
I probably shouldn't talk about this too loudly. Here in Canada, we have universal, government-funded health insurance that is chronically under-funded. The government may see these surgery Webcast and pharmaceutical advertising ideas as great ways to reduce healthcare costs. "So you think that you want that operation, eh? Well, watch this. That might change your mind." (Excuse the "eh" in the above quote. Here in Canada, we are constitutionally required to form all questions by sticking the word "eh" at the end of a statement. Feel free to substitute "do you?" for "eh?" if you're reading this somewhere other than Canada.)
Another thing bothers me about this surgery Webcast thing. (Does it surprise you that something else bothers me?) I can't get a horrifying image out of my head--no, it's not an operation; I've never seen one of the surgery Webcasts. It's much more frightening than that. Travel with me, if you will, to the suburban household of a family that does not have adequate medical insurance. After a long session of Web surfing, Ethel, the frugal wife, calls out, "Sam, stop worrying about how we're going to pay for that hernia operation you need. I just learned how to perform it myself. It looks easy. We'll save a bundle if I do it for you."
Ah, I don't think so, Ethel. I sure hope that these Webcasts come plastered with "don't try this at home" warnings.