Surgery for Dummies

Using Lego and Muppets in his Edmonton studio, Dr. Jonathan White offers instruction to medical students – and patients – around the world.

“Nobody sat down and said, ‘We want to make a podcast that’s going to be listened to all around the world,'” says Dr. Jonathan White, professor of surgery at the University of Alberta. On the contrary. When Surgery 101 debuted back in 2008, its goal was modest; to supplement White’s lectures with portable content that could be used on the then-newfangled iPod. White and his co-creator, Dr. Parveen Boora, cranked out the first 10 episodes quickly, using nothing more than a laptop and GarageBand, threw them up on iTunes and then – well, kind of forgot about them.

“We said, ‘let’s make this for our students,’ and then we literally moved on to something else,” White says. “Parveen went back into training to become a surgeon. I went back to my practice and all the academic stuff I do.”

And that’s when the emails started to come in.

The first one was from Germany. “Not only to say they liked it, but to make requests, basically,” White remembers. “‘You’ve done an episode of appendicitis. Thanks very much. But could we have one on neurology?'”

He was taken aback by the message, but he knew an opportunity when he saw it. There was clearly a demand for accessible, informative audio content about the surgical world. And, even if White wasn’t an expert in the requested areas, one of his colleagues down the hall was. Before long, the podcast became a weekly production, later expanding into video episodes – featuring a cast of custom Muppets and Lego mini-figures -thanks to a team of film students from NAIT, not to mention Jenni Marshall, a dedicated staff member whose job is to work on the podcast four days per week. White notes that Marshall is  the only program assistant at the entire U of A who works exclusively in digital education.

Today, the whole suite of Surgery 101 products is produced out of a non-descript office, just down the hall from White’s, in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Community Services Centre. Inside is what you might find if you gave a six-year-old an hour alone with your credit card. The first thing you spot are the dozen Muppets, each wearing homemade surgical scrubs, piled in a corner behind a computer monitor. Along another wall are thousands of Lego pieces, many carefully organized in dozens of little drawers with labels like “O.R. Gear,” “Skateboards” and “Lightsabers.” Pull back the curtain behind the door, meanwhile, and you’ll see the Lego shooting stage (made to order by Marshall’s father), complete with a cluster of lamps aimed at a makeshift hospital food court. One surgeon is about to tuck into a pepperoni pizza. Another appears to be enjoying a quiet moment with coffee and a doughnut – deservedly so, given that these characters just dealt with an overload of clown and superhero patients in a recent video about patient handover between shifts. (“Don’t be a douchebar,” concludes the pirate mini-figure, looking into the camera. “Use SBARR.” To the medically inclined, that’s situation, background, assessment, recommendations and review.)

The podcast’s audience is nearly as surprising as its cast. A survey conducted in partnership with the U of A’s business school and digital marketers from MacEwan University found that two-thirds of Surgery 101 listeners were medical students. Approximately 30 per cent also worked in health care: doctors in training, nurses, and other allied health professionals. But the remaining five per cent? Patients, who were either about to have surgeries or were considering them. On top of its educational value, it turns out that Surgery 101 can help calm the nerves of people nervous about what their upcoming experience on the table has in store. Now, White says that sometimes he’ll even be interrupted by his real-life patients while describing their procedure. “I heard you say this already,” they tell him. “I looked you up online last night and saw you’ve done a podcast on my condition.”

After finding breakout success online, Surgery 101‘s popularity is still growing. Currently it’s most popular in the United States, with more than 1.2 million downloads to date. Canada comes second, at 500,000 total downloads. Then Singapore, at 350,000. China, Australia, Saudi Arabia and India are among the countries that round out the top 10. In all, Surgery 101 averages 1,500 to 2,500 downloads per day, which, even conservatively, translates into one download every minute.The deliveries may be different, but White still applies the same educational methods to his podcast as he does with his surgical students. In 2014, he was one of 10 university professors across Canada to be awarded a 3M national teaching fellowship. So even if you’re listening to Podcast 101 from an ocean away, you can feel like you’re right there in the room with him. “It’s exactly the same thing as we’re currently doing with a medical student,” White says. “Except instead of teaching one student at a time, you’re teaching 10,000 at a time.”

Surgical instrument: Lego

The other mainstays in Surgery 101 videos are the instantly recognizable Danish mini-figurines of the Lego universe. When White came across a Lego-based video from the City of Edmonton, he called the producer Jeff Allen, and asked for a crash course in stop-motion animation. Since then, White and his team have produced more than a dozen Surgery 101 videos, shot on a custom shooting stage and some makeshift hospital scenery.

Like the idea itself, the size of the collection has taken off: White and his colleagues have amassed an estimated 10,000 pieces over the years, from architectural blocks to Ghostbusters, and they’re always scouting the Lego Store in Southgate Mall for new sets that might be able to be converted for medical use. Somehow, they always seem to find a way.


Surgical instrument: Muppets

Move over, Bert and Ernie. Two of the most popular contributors to Surgery 101 are cut from the same cloth as your favourite residents of Sesame Street. Dr. Scalpel is, in White’s words, “the senior, serious, slightly anal-retentive surgeon” with the tall green head and light blue nose. Thumbs, on the other hand, is a surgery resident with a bright orange face and thick black-rimmed glasses, who asks dumb questions on the viewer’s behalf. Together they’ve covered topics ranging from dealing with bleeding to how to hold a scalpel. 

The pair, along with about a dozen other customizable Muppets, were purchased from FAO Schwarz’s (now-defunct) Whatnot Workshop in New York City, on the recommendation of a visiting film student from NAIT who dreamed of working on The Muppet Show as a kid. He got his wish, in a roundabout sort of way.

Beyond the novelty factor, White says that using Muppets on video actually makes viewers more likely to receive and retain information. “It’s really surprising,” he says of the effect. “It’s the fact that you’re putting this soft, cuddly, furry, funny thing with surgery, which is quite serious.”

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