TOP 10: Books Every Medical Student Should Read

When I was young, I enjoyed reading but I never described myself as an “avid reader”. In high school, I skated by my AP Literature and Language classes by using Spark Notes for the books that my naive self thought would be boring. In college I was too busy or too broke to purchase books not required by my course load. Once I got to medical school I was overwhelmed with reading. I elected to enroll in a “Problem Based Learning” pathway which meant aside from a Osteopathic Manipulation Medicine course and a History and Physical course, most of my learning came form self-lead reading of medical textbooks. On days I didn’t have lecture, I would drag my textbooks to the library and would sit hunched over my Robbins & Cotran Pathology book, reading and highlighting until the sun set.  After I took Level 1 at the end of my second year, I found that not having anything to read was a void in my life. Sure I still had shelf exams to study for, but all of a sudden I had  an abundance of free time that I had no idea what to do with. I started to read for fun, and I finally understood the appeal. Reading serves as an escape, a way to immerse yourself in a story of someone else. Over the past two years I have been playing catch up on all the books I have missed out on. I have compiled my top 10 medicine related books that I recommend for anyone pursuing a career in healthcare.

1 –  The House of God  by Samuel Shem (pen name of Dr. Stephen Joseph Bergman)

house of godThis is one of those “right of passage” types of books in medicine. I received it during my second year of medical school having never heard about it before. I read the first chapter and promptly decided this book was not for me. The style of the writing made it very difficult to read and the speaker used so many nicknames for the other characters that I found the story line confusing.  I cast it aside and didn’t think much about it until I was on rotations. That is until I starting on internal medicine and in my first day I was asked twice if I had read the book and I was pointed towards the “Laws of the House of God” hanging in the resident lounge. I promptly went home, dug out my copy and got reading. While I still don’t know how the House of God has such a cult following, it has seeped into medical culture. Many of the terms used in the book are commonplace in the hospitals and many believe it has been the driving force behind many changes in medicine including work hour restrictions or calling to light the challenges of pay for performance type healthcare. House of God is also the inspiration behind the popular medical satire webpage GomerBlog.

2 –  The White Coat Investor  by Dr. James Dahle

white coatConfession: budgeting and money management has never been a strength of mine. I’ve never spent irresponsibly but investing for retirement and talking about malpractice insurance would go right over my head. One of my fellow classmates recommended this book to me as a good introduction to investing & preparing for a full-time salary next year (about time!). I was worried this book would be too detailed for me to understand but I found it to be an easy read. It was written by a practicing emergency room physician  and he discusses everything from paying off student loans, to setting a budget as a resident, to protecting your assets as a practicing physician. I recommend this to anyone in healthcare who needs an introduction to managing their finances. BONUS Dr. Dahle runs his own website where he has additional tips and resources regarding money matters.

3 – When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

When BreathPrepare to ugly cry! Truthfully I avoided reading this book for many months after it was first recommended to me. I had heard the gist of it was a true story about a neurosurgery resident being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and how he coped with transitioning from physician to patient. I worried that reading this book would force me to realize that I am not invincible. Going into medicine doesn’t spare us from the very diseases we spend years learning how to fight. Reading Dr. Kalanithi’s account of finding his cancer and then undergoing treatment made me take a step back and realize how thankful I am for my health,  a career I love, and that each day is a gift in itself.

4 – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for  a Hat  by Dr. Oliver Sacks

oliver sacksI discovered Dr. Oliver Sacks work in college where I was studying neuroscience. This book is a collection of short stories of patients Dr. Sacks has encountered and their unusual clinical presentation of brain pathology.  The cases described in this book are 1 in a million but the lessons taught by Dr. Sacks are applicable to all patients encountered.

5 –  Do No Harm by Dr. Henry Marsh

do no harm.jpgBritish Neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Marsh uses his most memorable cases to describe the lessons he has learned throughout his training. He discusses the brain and its complexity and how every case he has encountered has been unique and has taught him something about the way he practices medicine.

6 – This Won’t Hurt a Bit by Dr. Michelle Au

this won't hurt a bitI actually laughed out loud numerous times during the first chapter when Dr. Au describes having to do an uncomfortable procedure as a third year medical student. Often times as a medical student you feel that everything you do is wrong and that no matter how much you study you don’t know enough. Dr. Au perfectly captures this feeling and adds a refreshing humorous and honest spin to the experience. She also talks about her experience balancing motherhood and medicine and how she manages to find a life outside the hospital.

7 – Performing Under Pressure by Dr. Hendrie Weisinger & Dr. J.P. Pawliw-Fry

performing under prssureI wish I found this book before I started medical school. While it is not written specifically for those in medicine it does apply to the challenges we face in this career including board tests, audition rotations or nerve racking procedures. This book was based on research from 12,000 participants who ranged from pro-athletes to Navy SEALS to FBI agents or Fortune Five Hundred executives and discuses the secret to succeeding in high pressure scenarios. This book describes 22 strategies to excel in the face of adversity.

8 – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

HenriettaThe story of Henrietta Lacks garnered attention this year thanks to the HBO drama starring Oprah that came out in 2017 but her story actually dates back to 1951. Henrietta Lacks was an African American women who grew up in poverty. At the age of 31 she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer which was biopsied at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Unbeknownst to Henrietta her biopsy was kept in a lab and was cultured by George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher. Surprisingly the cervical cancer cells began to replicate in the petri dish, the first time ever human cells were grown outside of a living body. Gey named the cells HeLa after “Henrietta Lacks”. Neither Henrietta nor her family  knew her cells were being cultured and she died several months later. Gey continued to produce the HeLa cells and to date they have been used in tens of thousands of research studies and have played a role in AIDS treatment to development of the polio virus to gene mapping. The story of Henrietta Lacks has gained attention because it highlights the violation of a patient’s rights and calls into question the ethics of medical research.

9 – Every Patient Tells a Story by Dr. Lisa Sanders

every patientI just started reading this book earlier this week and I can’t put it down. Dr. Sanders begins this book by talking of the importance of the diagnosis and how small mistakes can lead to big implications for a patient’s prognosis. Reading each patient’s case is suspenseful and  the details are revealed to the reader much like a television medical drama unfolds over the course of an hour. It’s not surprising that Dr. Sanders is able to keep the reader on their toes as she is the author behind the New York Time’s column “Diagnosis” which is the inspiration for the ever popular TV show House, M.D.

10 – Trauma Room Two by Dr. Philip Allen Green

Trauma Room 2This is a collection of short stories written by a small town Emergency Room Physician. While the stories are non-fiction they are based on Dr. Green’s 15 years of experience in the trauma bay. I purchased this book after completing my trauma surgery rotation and I felt as if this book got me. Its hard to describe the whirlwind of excitement & euphoria felt after a good patient outcome and the sense of guilt & anger if a patient is lost to someone outside of the medical field. With Dr. Green’s writing I felt as if I were a fly on the wall of his trauma bay. His writing is so vivid and the short stories make this a very quick read. Highly recommend for anyone interested in emergency medicine or surgery!


3 thoughts on “TOP 10: Books Every Medical Student Should Read

    1. I read it on a plane and the man next to me watched me ugly cry throughout that whole part 😳 it was so beautifully written and her emotions were so raw! How can you not cry??

      Liked by 1 person

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