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Professor’s Surgery 101 podcasts are a huge hit

“We’re only getting started,” says U of Alberta’s Jonathan White of his audio and video tutorials.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAR 05 2014
Surgery 101, now with Muppets! Photo courtesy of Jonathan White.

Type the words “Surgery 101” into a Google search and at least the first 10 results relate to Professor Jonathan White’s Surgery 101 podcasts. It’s a testament to the worldwide popularity of the online tutorials, which collectively have been downloaded more than 1.2 million times in 175 countries.

Dr. White, who holds the University of Alberta’s Tom Williams Endowed Chair in Surgical Education, created the first podcasts in 2008 with his then senior resident Parveen Boora. The idea was to create a simple study aid for their surgical students.

Dr. White posted the first few episodes online and then basically forgot about them. Months later, when he received an e-mail from Australia asking about future episodes, he decided to check the stats: the podcasts were being downloaded about 50 times a day, with no marketing or advertising.

Encouraged, he and his team began to produce additional episodes on various surgical topics. There are now 130 audio podcasts available for download free of charge at surgery101.org or on iTunes. Users can also sign up to receive bonus content, including surgical notes, for a yearly subscription fee of $4.99. His efforts earned him the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in 2010 and just last month he was named a 2014 3M National Teaching Fellow.

Impressive, but “we’re really only getting started,” says Dr. White. Last summer, with the help of two film students from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, they developed a number of video-based projects, the first of which, called “Muppet Surgery,” was posted online on January 1.

“Initially we thought we’d do something like ‘Operations 101’ [in a live operating theatre], but once we got the film students involved, it took a different turn,” he says. “We started talking about narratives and storytelling, and how you make the whole thing not just informative but immersive, too.”

After receiving some funds from an industry partner, they developed the idea of using puppets to help tell the story. “I was worried about the whole thing, but the Muppets were a hit,” he says. They have also explored a Star Trek surgery concept and have produced several episodes of stop-motion animation using Lego characters. A zombie surgery video is also being contemplated.

“I’m 45 and here I am playing with Lego and Muppets,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Dr. White is not concerned about running out of ideas for episodes. “Even if you stuck just to the different surgical diseases, that would probably be about 400 different topics, and then add to that topics like education, patient safety, health promotion. … There’s an enormous amount of stuff we haven’t covered yet.”

The time commitment, though, is heavy. “I’d love to be able to hand it off to somebody else. The problem is I still want to have control over it because it’s kind of my baby,” he says. “I’m going to have to stop doing this eventually, but I’m not at that point yet.”

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