March 17, 2014

EDMONTON – A couple of Muppets are putting on quite the show at the University of Alberta, and it’s all in the name of medical education.

“People come for the Muppets, but they stay for the surgery,” said Dr. Jonathan White.

White, a surgeon and associate professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, is the man behind Surgery 101. The Muppet Surgery podcast series is used as a teaching tool for medical students.

The show is hosted by two charismatic Muppets — Dr. Scalpel, the old-fashioned attending surgeon, and his not-so-sure-of-himself surgical resident Thumbs. Together, Dr. Scalpel and Thumbs teach their audience the basics of the operating room.

“You watch an episode because it’s weird, because who the hell would use a Muppet to talk about surgery? But after four or five minutes you’ve actually learned something you didn’t know before,” said White.

The podcast started five years ago, from simple beginnings. At the time, the episodes were audio files White posted on iTunes, which were free for his students to download. But he quickly learned it was reaching many, many more people.

“1.3 million downloads almost and 175 countries,” White said.

And his fans wanted more; they wanted video. So with the help of some digital media students from NAIT, the concept of Muppet Surgery was born.

“It’s one of those ideas that doesn’t seem to make much sense on the surface. ‘You’re going to take a puppet and get it to tell me about surgery? Ummm?’ But it seemed to be something worthwhile pursuing.”

Now, the friendly Muppet faces also help ease tensions of those a bit wary of going under the knife.

“Somebody who’s having an operation tomorrow and is a bit worried about it can go to episode three or four and watch ‘What’s What in the OR‘ and see what the inside of an operating room actually looks like before they get there, and have a Muppet guide them through it,” said White.

And while at first White was worried he may not be taken seriously by his students and colleagues, the unique approach to teaching has been an all-around hit.

“It’s a good way to teach about how people are becoming surgeons, how we turn them into surgeons. And then it’s a good way to teach about what it’s like to actually be that thing when you’re the expert — through a way that you wouldn’t imagine.”

Plus, he says it’s a lot of fun.

“Having some dude in a white coat sit down in front of a camera and talk about it isn’t half as effective as having a Muppet in a white coat talk about it.”

White’s approach to medical education recently eared him a 3M National Teaching Fellow, which is Canada’s highest honour for post-secondary teaching.

The Muppets White uses were designed by FAO Schwarz in New York.


Thumbs (L) with Dr. Scalpel (M) sits with a nurse.

Su-Ling Goh, Global News


Dr. Jonathan White holds Dr. Scalpel at the Royal Alexandra Hospital Wednesday, March 19, 2014.


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