PowerPoint in Medicine: Conversation with Terry Irwin

Monday, March 8, 2010
posted by Geetesh at 4:29 PM IST



Terry IrwinTerry Irwin is a consultant surgeon in Belfast, Northern Ireland working for the National Health Service (NHS) at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the main regional centre in Northern Ireland. His surgical specialty is colon and rectal surgery - always a good conversation stopper when people ask him what he does. His response is that he repairs waste disposal systems! Terry is also a long time PowerPoint user and co-author of a book on PowerPoint geared towards the designing of medical presentations. In this conversation, Terry talks about the the usage of PowerPoint in the medicine industry, and his training sessions.

Geetesh: What are the specific areas of PowerPoint usage by the medical community including doctors that sets it apart from mainstream PowerPoint use?

Terry: PowerPoint is of course the main method of supporting communication at medical meetings, training sessions and in teaching students. It is pretty much universal. While in many ways it has much in common with presentation content in other arenas, there are some subtle and some more significant differences.

Most scientific presentations have to be balanced, there is no product to hype up or sell. Instead the arguments for and against have to be presented, ideally with a clear conclusion. A major concern in clinical presentations is confidentiality. Much of the material centres around patient data, but we have to respect patients' rights at the same time. That is not always easy.

Also, medicine is rich in digital data. Radiology and endoscopy systems can now save digitised output such as CT and MR scans, ECGs, colonoscopies and keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. Many people don't realise that CT, ultrasound and MR images are 3D and can be reconstructed in some very clever ways. They can also be exported as videos. Showing full screen embedded video in a presentation is the holy grail of medical presentation at the minute and being able to overlay text and markers on top of the video without having to learn how to use video editing software, will revolutionise medical presentations.

Geetesh: Tell us more about the type of PowerPoint training you provide.

Terry: Medical staff and students are really good at speaking and really bad at content design! I guess this is no surprise, since they are used to speaking one to one with patients, and their hand-writing is terrible. Still, it drives me crazy that they cannot lay out slide content in a way that enhances their message, rather than distracting from it. I try to help with understanding basic concepts: legibility, color schemes, correct use of graphics, tables and artwork. I work hard at trying to eradicate those old PowerPoint annoyances of reading slides aloud, wordy slide content and irritating animation. In addition, my main focus is on content delivery. No surprises -- doctors are very clinical! They need to learn to tell a story, capture the attention of the audience and communicate their message. This comes easily to sales teams but it is counter-intuitive for medics.

A favorite, and one that always goes down well, is to take a presentation from one of the audience and do a make over on it. This has unearthed some fantastic lessons. Two good examples are the X-ray images photographed on a light box with a digital camera. The resulting color image can be an enormous file. Reducing this by resizing it, cropping out the edges and converting it to greyscale can reduce file size dramatically. A second classic was the beautiful pie chart that included a linked Excel spreadsheet containing three years of PhD research that had been left on a server at a meeting. So much for keeping your data safe from prying eyes!

I do a lot of one-to-one teaching with my own staff. After all, when they speak at meetings, they are representing me, so it had better be good. I also get invites to teach in some other departments in Queen's University in Belfast. On top of that I have been lucky enough to be asked to speak at meetings in places as far apart as Reykjavik, Prague, Athens and Beijing! A highlight was an invitation to spend a week teaching PowerPoint in Dubai. As I write this, I am about to travel to Cuba and Barbados with my other passion - I am the honorary secretary of the Travelling Surgical Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will be doing a teaching session on communication skills in Barbados as part of this meeting. This will include two talks on presentations.

So PowerPoint has been good to me, I have got to meet a lot of interesting people along the way, including my good friend and co-author Julie Terberg and of course Geetesh Bajaj!

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September 16 2009