Surgeon offers inside look at shoulder operation

In an age of omnipresent technology, Americans are getting used to the idea that everything around them is going to be recorded on video. Now a Billings doctor is expanding that to include what’s inside them.

Thomas Owen at the Yellowstone Surgery Center says he is the first surgeon in the region to begin distributing internal videos and photos, accompanied by narrative, to patients undergoing surgery done with the aid of a scope, such as joint and rotator cuff injuries.

He has distributed recordings of surgeries to patients about 30 times over the last six months, Owen said. While some patients are reluctant to see what their surgery looks like, 80 percent to 90 percent welcome the opportunity.

“I’m not beating the drum for the technology,” he said. “People can do it if they want to. There’s no downside.”

The upside is that seeing the surgery helps patients appreciate the gravity of their injury and makes them more interested and compliant in their recovery, he said.

“I like to see good outcomes,” he said, “and the more invested you are in your recovery, the better you’re going to do regardless.”

Well, there may be one downside, he said, pointing to a table of surgical assistants in the Surgery Center’s lunchroom.

“These guys hate it because they can’t swear in the OR,” he said. Those at the table smiled.

“This is true,” one said.

A sample of short videos that Owen provided to help explain how it all works makes for gripping viewing. Sports fans have all heard of rotator cuff injuries, but few have seen one up close. Now they can.

In the videos, Owen removes frazzled bits of torn tissue and pushes the weak, damaged tendon. When he inserts a suture successfully, he announces, “Beautiful! That’s how it’s supposed to go.”

As he finishes, he announces that he is going off camera to cut off sutures that are still outside the body.

“This will keep you from walking around with sutures hanging outside of your shoulder,” he says. “You lose style points for that.”


David Crisp/Last Best News

Dr. Thomas Owen, with Yellowstone Surgery Center.

The demonstration is on a cadaver, but as he finishes up, he says, “What I say at this point usually, a little luck and a little biology, you’ll be right as rain, and I’ll see you in recovery.”

Owen acknowledges that his openness about the procedure is in part a marketing tool. He wants to build a reputation for openness, but he argues that greater openness should be part of the entire healthcare system, which is often shrouded in mystery.

“We’re very transparent,” he said. “I’m very transparent with healthcare.”

He said he doesn’t worry that openness might make his practice more vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits. Whether he is recording or not, he said, he is obligated to tell patients about anything that may go wrong in a procedure, and most patients are tolerant of a mistake if the surgeon is honest about it.

Montanans in general are more trusting and cooperative than patients back East, he said. Owen was born on a ranch near Red Lodge but served his residency in Boston and worked at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

“In New York,” he said, “they just want to drop their arm off and come back and pick it up.”

Owen said he decided to go into medicine while serving as an airborne satellite communications technician in the Air Force. He was in Ecuador when a U.S. cargo plane crashed, he said, and he was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for his efforts to help the injured.

He did what he could to patch people up, he said, “But I didn’t really make anybody better.”

That made him want to do better, and now he wants to make patients better by getting a closer look at their own surgery.

“That’s the wave of the future in healthcare,” he said. “People have been in the dark long enough.”

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