Skip to Content

Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Mr. Potato Head Goes to Medical School

AAMC Reporter: March 2011

—By Whitney L.J. Howell, special to the Reporter

The scene is shocking. Sixteen gravely injured trauma victims lie on the floor. Some have lost limbs; others are disfigured. Teams of doctors scramble to care for critical patients—and time is running out.

Seconds stretch into minutes. Not every patient is going to make it.

Lucky for everyone, then, that the patients are made of plastic, and don’t exactly have the most complicated of comorbidities.

The patients are, in fact, Mr. Potato Head dolls, and the “doctors” are third-year students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). Working in teams, the students race to reassemble each dismembered spud while honing their critical thinking, decision-making, and process-improvement skills.

“Every school has lectures that talk about this type of work,” said Eric Dickson, M.D., UMMS emergency medicine professor and co-director of the Medical Error and Patient Safety Interclerkship, which runs the Mr. Potato Head simulation. “But you can’t learn to ride a bike by sitting in a classroom, and you can’t learn teamwork or rapid response without actually doing it.”

UMMS fashioned the simulation after car manufacturer Toyota’s production model, Dickson said. The goal is to remove wasteful actions from health care and create a better environment for giving and receiving treatment, with everything done to add maximum value for the patient.

To conduct the simulation, Dickson divides 100 students into 10 teams and tasks them with reassembling 16 dolls —hats and glasses included—to match 16 photographs.

Teams select a leader, two members to deliver parts, and two others to assemble the potatoes, with the remaining students organizing the pieces. The goal is to reconfigure the spuds in about eight minutes, after which point incomplete dolls are considered casualties.

A July 2009 Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine article reported that simulation exercises in medical education can improve “clinical knowledge, procedural skills, teamwork, and communication.” Third-year UMMS medical student Jacob Klein, who completed the Mr. Potato Head simulation in September, said he felt the activity enhanced the learning process. Working quickly pushed students to identify and avoid errors that could harm a patient’s health, Klein said. The task is advantageous, he added, because it not only captures the stress of high-risk scenarios but gives students insights they do not receive elsewhere.

“In medical school, we study the basic science behind disease and what treatments are used,” Klein said. “But medicine is a business—a large organization—and, as physicians, we will be team leaders and managers. We don’t get formal training on that aspect of medicine. That’s often lacking in medical education.”

The experience also keeps the new medical student generation engaged in learning. Many of today’s students grew up in a more fast-paced environment where they moved quickly between activities, and hour-long lectures can strain their attention spans, Dickson said.

Cynthia Morris, R.N., associate professor of simulation education and coordinator of the University of New England Clinical Simulation Program, echoed the need to capture students’ focus.

“Students respond to things that are creative and that spark their interest,” she said. “Simulation doesn’t have to be high-tech, and using Mr. Potato Head is interesting.”

The activity could also enhance how students perform as physicians, said Miriam Bar-on, M.D., associate dean for graduate medical education and advisory panel member of the Clinical Simulation Center of Las Vegas at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

“It gives groups an opportunity to assess situations, form plans together, and have them work toward a common goal,” she said. “It teaches them to take their steps as a team. They can execute their plan and see that learning can be fun.”

This simulation could also be an icebreaker for interprofessional teams, Bar-on said, because it levels the playing field between provider types. All health professionals can complete this activity, allowing everyone to perform equally and giving each individual an opportunity to contribute to finishing the task.

Students have reacted positively to the simulation, said Eric Alper, M.D., UMMS associate professor of medicine, who discussed the simulation at the June AAMC Integrating Quality Meeting in Chicago. Graduating students who are armed with the skills to provide better, more patient-centered care is the true success, he said.

“This is a nice model of real-life experience,” Alper said. “It’s a fun way to communicate, it keeps students engaged, and they can apply what they learn to actual patient care.”