Muppets, Lego and surgeons hit medical education milestone

Worldwide popularity boosts Surgery 101 podcasts past two million downloads.


(Edmonton) Jonathan White has gained international fame for his approach to surgical education as the mind and the voice behind Surgery 101, which has just celebrated two million downloads from more than 200 countries around the world.

“It’s pretty cool because more people have heard me say, ‘Welcome to Surgery 101’ than will ever hear me in person,” he says. “I’m probably never going to go to North Korea, but apparently my voice has been there already.”

What started as a one-man podcast supported by office administration slowly grew into an app that offers users notes, mini-courses and the now-famous videos featuring Muppets, Lego, zombies and more.

Bringing the videos to life is a feat: from start to finish, the process can take up to four weeks and challenges the team to use a variety of photo and video editing tools, DSLR cameras with multiple lenses, GoPro cameras, a cinema camera, green screens, stop-motion programs—and, of course, favourite pop-culture icons.

“If you would have asked me a few years ago about the video stuff, I would have said it’s a massive headache because it’s so much more complicated than audio. Creating it, you have to take a totally different tactic,” White says. “Now, the podcast itself has become way less audio and much more visual, and I find I’m becoming much more focused on the visual aspects of surgery myself.”

White, who also teaches a variety of surgery courses at all stages of medical education, was named a 3M National Teaching Fellow in 2014, partially due to his work with Surgery 101. When he speaks of his work, it’s clear where his passion lies.

“It’s my job to help students see behind the surgeon’s mask and inspire a wider range of students to learn about surgery,” White says. “I want to show learners that surgeons are made, not born. You don’t have to have a certain kind of hands or a special sort of heart. I’m trying to tell students that I’m an ordinary guy and if I can become a surgeon, maybe they can do the same—and they might be really good at it.”

White’s enthusiasm for sharing his work was part of what encouraged this year’s summer research students, Lucy Wang and Corey Luda, to get involved in Surgery 101.

“I went on iTunes and typed in ‘surgery’ because I was interested in going into medicine,” Luda, a pharmacology student, says of his introduction to Surgery 101 in 2009. “Surgery 101 popped up [and at that time] was still only a few podcasts.”

Wang and Luda assist in scripting, filming, editing, creating special effects and publishing the videos. “Corey is really excited about photography, lighting and setting up the shots,” explains Wang, a science student who will enter medical school in September. “I’m more excited about [Adobe] Premier and editing.” 

Jenni Marshall, the program assistant for digital education, notes that they will also create their own video on the CanMEDS framework; targeted to residents, it will be supplemented with Lego stop-motion videos outlining principles and presentations from the annual resident teaching retreat in Banff.

Episodes are available free at the new Surgery 101 website and the Surgery 101 YouTube channel, where users will soon find the second “season” of Muppet Surgery, which, White notes, will be released together. The team has also developed a 99-cent Surgery 101 app for OS, Android and Windows Mobile operating systems; proceeds from the app are donated to the Tom Williams Endowed Chair of Surgical Education, which White currently holds.