Finding time to read as a medical student can be tough, especially after long days in anatomy lab or nights reviewing lecture slides. Free time is a luxury that is usually filled with exercising, cooking, watching TV or hanging out with friends. However, even between these busy hours, there are some books that are must-reads for medical students. They are well-written, provide unique but essential perspectives on the field of medicine, and are just plain good. This is the list of the top 6 must-read books for pre-med and medical students, based not only on my own experience, but also the insights and opinions of several other medical students and residents.
This book can be intimidating at first. It is thick. It is about history. It is about cancer. I received it as a high school graduation present and thought I would never get to reading it. Despite these intimidating first impressions, I decided to crack the book open and I immediately devoured it. Emperor of all Maladies may appear at first glance as a laborious biography of cancer, but in reality, the book is much more. Mukherjee starts from the first documentations of cancer thousands of years ago and guides the reader on a journey to the cutting-edge research that is being conducted currently. He frames the major events in cancer’s history to literally keep you on the edge of seats. He so eloquently describes the vast history of the disease that still is one of the major health problems in our world. There is no other book like this one out there, and it is a must-read for medical students, as they will definitely encounter cancer at some point in their medical training or practice. Mukherjee also wrote The Gene: An Intimate History that also released with stellar reviews.
Like Siddhartha Mukherjee, I believe that Atul Gawande is a must-read author for any medical student. Aside from Being Mortal, he has other excellent books, such as The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right and Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. Being Mortal was the first of Gawande’s books that I read, and I am so glad I did. The traditional notion is that doctors should save people’s lives and do no harm, which still is 100% true. However, Gawande touches on a topic that every doctor must experience but never talks about — end-of-life choices. In particular, he specifically explores assisted living facilities and medical procedures for older patients in a thoughtful manner. The book delves into the uncomfortable topic of mortality and the inevitable reality that all lives must come to an end. However, Gawande frames this topic in a way that is important for all health-care professionals to understand.
I bought Cutting for Stone after going to a conference where Varghese was the keynote speaker. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, because I think it is very different from other novels written by physician-authors. While other medically-oriented novels are set in the familiar environment of a hospital and detail medical school experiences, Varghese sets up a starkly different environment. Cutting for Stone is set in Ethiopia and focuses on two twin brothers whose mother died in childbirth and whose father fled. The book has numerous storylines ranging from a changing political climate to coming-of-age stories, but the medical topics are beautifully intertwined to help shape your perspective as a medical student. The twins are raised by two physicians and without giving too much away, as you read the book, the lessons to be learned as a medical student are evident. I especially appreciated how Varghese transports you to a very different world in this book but is still able to tie in important messages that are universal.
There is a near 100% chance that either in medical school (or when speaking to a non-medical person about medical school), this book will be mentioned. When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir written by Kalanithi detailing his reflections of facing stage 4 non-small-cell lung cancer as a physician. Kalanithi died in March 2015 and his memoir was published posthumously. This novel has impacted readers everywhere, even those not in the medical field. It is a heartbreaking, raw, and powerful novel.
Physicians are dedicated to their patients and take an oath of selflessness. Physicians are there for patients at their most vulnerable times. However, physicians are humans too and experience the same complexity of emotions—sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety, grief, gratefulness and shame. In What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, Ofri opens the curtain to reveal her emotional experiences and how reflecting on these has shaped her as a physician. As future physicians, I believe Ofri’s book is a must-read to prepare for working with patients and gaining perspective about your own feelings and emotions.
The history of medicine is fascinating and even more fascinating are the leaders who made it the field it is today. An Anatomy of Addiction details the cocaine addictions of Sigmund Freud and William Halsted. It is a book that takes you back to a different time in medicine, intertwining biographies of two prominent men and a condition that still plagues our current generation. Especially if you are interested in surgery, it is a must-read, as William Halsted is widely considered the father of modern surgery and aseptic technique.