Medical literature, like most other scientific or disciplinary literature, tends to come in two main forms. The first – the voluminous medical journal – is designed to consolidate scientific debate, thus disseminating information and providing a forum for discussion. The second – and the one which we are concerned with in this article – is what I term the medical “novel”.
Now, the term “novel” usually applies to fiction, but I use it here to describe a genre of medical book that uses clinical case studies to build a narrative that carries an ethical, moral or clinical message. Say, for example, the argument that patients with mental deficits (as they are sometimes known) can experience the world in enlightening and unique ways that we cannot and should not, therefore, be defined as “less”.
I have personally found these medical novels incredibly useful, both in preparing for interview and in deciding to pursue a medical career. These books provide an insight into what a medical career is like: the wonderful people you might meet, the challenges you might face, the mistakes you will make and the exceptional things you will see. Outside of work experience, these books provide an excellent sense of the application and progression of medical science, which will serve you well at interview, but also (I hope) pique your fascination in Medicine.
So, without further blabbering, here are my Good Reads for Medicine.
Kevin Fong: Extremes (Life, Death and the Limits of the Human Body)
A consultant anaesthetist whose curriculum vitae includes a stint in HEMS and at NASA, Kevin Fong has produced television programmes for the BBC (including an impromptu appearance on 24 Hours in A&E). In this book, he explores the limits of human physiology and medical intervention when faced with different challenges – from hypothermia to burns, trauma, drowning and being launched into outer space.
He does so by beautifully charting the development of medical practice in each relevant area, supplemented by fascinating historical case studies and his own front-line experience. In particular, he explores the development of heart surgery, intensive care, maxillofacial surgery and the Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) protocol.
This book provides an appreciation of just how far we have come in the past century alone, and leaves us wondering how far we might progress in the next.
Atul Gawande: The Checklist Manifesto
A public health adviser, surgeon and public speaker – you can’t go wrong with Gawande. This will be a controversial choice, as most will have read one of his many other, very good books. But for me, the Checklist Manifesto delivers insight into areas seldom covered by other medical novels.
In this book, Gawande tells his story of the development of the WHO Surgical Checklist. But really, it is a story about the ever-growing complexity of Medicine, the challenges of maintaining standards when the quantity of knowledge required by doctors becomes gargantuan, the importance of teamwork and how Medicine hasn’t always got it right. Gawande dispels the notion of the perfect practitioner by exploring how the surgical checklist was developed by learning from other industries (such as aviation). But his story also shows how simple, small innovations can save thousands of lives.
It’s a wonderful lesson in simplicity and teamwork.
Lewis Thomas: The Youngest Science
Lewis Thomas became a doctor in 1937, having seen his father practise before him, and subsequently embarked on a career that would take him to the Pacific to conduct research during World War Two, become Dean of NYU Bellevue Medical Centre and sit on the public health committee for New York City.
This book follows an entire lifetime of medical research and practice during (arguably) the most important century in Medicine. Lewis Thomas studied at a time when elixirs were still common practice, antibiotics were non-existent and major surgery carried a high risk of death from complication or infection. His story charts the development of medical practice in all areas – from medical research, to examination and intervention, to how students are taught. All the while recounting the life story of an incredibly interesting man.
If you read nothing else of this book, read his chapter on Illness, in which he narrates his own experiences of being a patient as both an elderly man, and a doctor.
Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Laws of Medicine
It’s the shortest book on the list (clocking in at 70 pages), but no less insightful. Based on a TED Talk, Mukherjee begins by exploring the complexity and uncertainty of medical practice – and asks, if Medicine is supposedly a science, can laws be written to govern its practice?
The laws that follow are not of the same type you’ll find in chemistry or physics. Instead, these laws are deeply rooted in human instinct, uncertainty and fallibility. This book will help to contextualise some of the things you may have experienced during work experience and provide food-for-thought when wondering what makes a successful intervention or, indeed, a good doctor.
Mukherjee also provides in this book probably the best definition of Medicine I have read so far – and the one I reference most often. See if you can spot it!
These are probably my top 4 books for a Medicine reading list (so far). But, I’d love to hear about any other books that you’d recommend – if you have any ideas please post them to The Medic Portal Community!