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Call it Operation Hashtag.

Thursday morning, Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre is making its mark on medical and social media history by live tweeting heart bypass surgery. (Scroll to the bottom of this article to see the feed). The hospital's social media expert and a staff photographer will be in the operating room to provide updates, take pictures and answer questions throughout the procedure. Anyone can follow the procedure by going to @Sunnybrook on Twitter or searching the hashtag #SBheart.

As of 9:30 a.m., the heart patient, Lou, a 57-year-old man with coronary artery disease, was prepared for surgery and given anaesthesia, and the doctor has made the incision.

The institution said it is performing this live tweet experiment as a way of educating the public about cardiac disease and the importance of heart health. February has been designated heart month and organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation run campaigns and educational initiatives to inform Canadians.

The move reflects the growing expectations that hospitals should embrace social media and engage with the public through platforms such as Twitter. A growing number of institutions are using various social media to hear complaints, answer questions and increase their transparency and accountability to the public.

In 2012, a Texas hospital live tweeted open heart surgery and, later that year, a brain operation as people around the world tuned in.

But the trend also comes with risks. Hospitals are required to guard patient privacy and tend to be conservative. An article in Healthy Debate in February notes that more hospitals seem to be warming to the opportunities of social media, such as using it to tell the public what to bring for a stay in the institution, but that there are many sensitive issues that they must grapple with.

Heart disease and stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. According to the foundation, someone dies of heart disease or stroke every seven minutes in Canada.

During bypass surgery, the breastbone is separated and the patient's heart is stopped and connected to a machine while the doctors work. In some cases, the heart is left beating, which is called an off-pump coronary artery bypass. This is used in patients that may have problems on the heart-lung bypass machine.

The doctor takes a vein from the patient's body, such as the saphenous vein in the leg, and it is used to make a detour around the blocked area in the patient's artery.

Sunnybrook estimates the surgery will take approximately four hours.

Follow me on Twitter: @carlyweeks

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