Over the past few years I’ve been approached a few times by prospective/current medical students asking me what books to read before applying to medical school/starting medicine/during medical education. So, I thought to put together a list of some of my favourite non-academic books relating to medicine along with a brief review of each. Note, however, that before my own admissions interview I had only read two books on this list: “Better” and “Do No Harm”. The rest of the books are those which I picked up later but nevertheless enjoyed and took away lessons from. By no means is this a definitive list. It’s not going to cover every aspect of a medical education/career. Nor is it an all-encompassing guide on How To Be The Best Doctor. This merely represents which parts of my “want to read” Goodreads library I have managed to get through – a list which sadly continues to grow at a snail’s pace… so many books, so little time.

Anything Atul Gawande has written

Atul Gawande – Better

Atul Gawande – The Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande's books make for very good medical reading material. He is a general surgeon, public health advocate, one of minds behind the WHO safe surgery checklist and one of the most skilled medical authors I’ve read. These books in particular I really like and they still influence my clinical practice and approach to life. “Better” deals with how clinicians (surgeons in particular) can improve their outcomes and draws insight from various different contexts ranging from warzones to hyper-specialist surgical centres with miraculous complication/survival rates. “The Checklist Manifesto” details how the aforementioned WHO surgical checklist was developed, and how Dr Gawande applied transferable principles from many fields including the aviation and finance into clinical practice.

Henry Marsh - Do No Harm

This is a great book to read as it’s from the perspective of a senior British neurosurgeon who was just about to retire when he wrote it. It has a lot of poignant reflections and lays bare some of the frustrations which form part of working in medicine. Here’s a quote which I really like, mostly because I spent the vast majority of my first year of clinical medicine self-diagnosed with one or another dreadful malady:

Most medical students go through a brief period when they develop all manner of imaginary illnesses – I myself had leukaemia for at least four days – until they learn, as a matter of self-preservation, that illnesses happen to patients, not to doctors

Samuel Shem - The House of God

By far one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, this is a hilariously cynical and raunchy satire based on the author’s own experiences as an intern at Harvard medical school, more than a few decades ago. If you read this, and still want to do medicine after reading it, you’ll be in good stead for the rest of your career – it really covers the good, bad and ugly of it all. Keep in mind though that this book represents an entirely different era of medicine and an antiquated way of doing things. A lot of this book might be considered crude, cruel and distasteful. Medicine nowadays has changed for the better, and now is much more wholesome, less cruel, and generally fairer on patients, families and healthcare workers.

To get a feel for what kind of a book this is, here are the author’s thirteen “laws of the House of God” *:

  1. GOMERS** don’t die.
  2. GOMERS go to ground.
  3. At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.
  4. The patient is the one with the disease***
  5. Placement comes first.
  6. There is no body cavity that cannot be reached with a #14G needle and a good strong arm.
  7. Age + BUN = Lasix dose.
  8. They can always hurt you more.
  9. The only good admission is a dead admission.
  10. If you don’t take a temperature, you can’t find a fever.
  11. Show me a [medical student] who only triples my work and I will kiss his feet.
  12. If the radiology resident and the medical student both see a lesion on the chest x-ray, there can be no lesion there.
  13. The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible

*  note that I personally do not endorse or agree with many of these laws – I just have a thing for gallows humour as a coping mechanism in dealing with life

** google it if you want to know what this means

*** I literally had this written down in ink on one of my ward notebooks when I was going through some health anxieties of my own

Thomas Morris - The Matter of the Heart: A history of the Heart in Eleven Operations

In case it wasn’t apparent that I have a fascination with everything cardiovascular (I just think that the physiology is the most elegant of all systems in the body) this was the first book I read in 2020. It describes how heart surgery has changed over the the years to be what it is today. The history of cardiac operations is one dominated by a thin line between bravery and foolhardiness, with macabre animal sacrifice and both miracle cures and unmitigated disasters in human patients. Nevertheless, cardiac surgery has developed to what it is today due to some of the finest scientific minds of the time solving seemingly impossible problems. Up until relatively recently, the heart was regarding as a uniquely mysterious and fragile organ, with surgeons not even daring to touch it. Slowly but surely however, advances in techniques and technology such as cardiopulmomary bypass, immunosupression and deep hypothermic circulatory arrest have enabled open heart surgery and even heart transplantation to be carried out with excellent outcomes in hundreds, if not thousands, of centres worldwide. Thomas Morris takes you through this history in an excellently written highlight reel of eleven important operations that changed the field of cardiac surgery.

Featured image by Debby Hudson on Unsplash