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Top 5 Book Recommendations: The Medical Student’s Reading list

Most medical schools ask applicants to spend at least at least two weeks gaining relevant work experience in healthcare; for most people, two weeks probably isn’t enough time to decide whether you really are picking the right career.

I think one of the best ways to really gain an insight into what it’s like to work as a doctor is pick up a book - there are some amazing reads out there written by those working in healthcare that really showed me what I was about to embark on.

Over the last week, we have been releasing what our top 5 recommendations for aspiring medics (and if you haven’t read these already and you’re just about to become a doctor, you still NEED to read these)!

Here's compilation of the recommendations and reviews.

1. This is Going to Hurt

I’ve only managed to finish this book recently, but I can safely say that it’s one of the most addictive things I’ve ever worked my way through! I think the reason why this book is ranked so high up most medical students’ reading lists are because of how honest Kay was throughout his retelling of what were basically his diary entries, starting at the end of medical school, to the end of his medical career. Kay trained in Obstetrics and Gynecology in the UK around 2010; between his countless stories of objects being stuck up body cavities and his scrubs being covered in bodily fluids, he really sheds light on the impact that a career in medicine can have on you mental wellbeing and your relationships with others. ‘This is Going to Hurt,’ is essentially a plea for hospitals and the government to care for the emotional wellness of all healthcare providers. Whether it was over how funny he was, or because of how heart-breaking his stories actually are, it’s safe to say that Kay’s account had me in tears for the majority of the time I was reading it.

Bonus: ‘Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas’ is Kay’s second book and features hilarious diary entries from Kay’s time working over the holiday period- the book makes a fantastic Christmas present!

2. When breath Becomes Air

This book was incredibly humbling and is a good reminder that regardless of public perceptions of doctors being almost like superheroes, they’re human too and go through the same struggles with health as everyone else. The book is an autobiography written by Paul Kalanithi (published after his death in 2015) and follows the life the young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer during the last year of residency training. Paul talks about his journey into and through medical school and the privilege he had of being able to change the course of a person's life through neurosurgery. Interestingly, he also documents the challenges he faced in making sure that his diagnosis does not rule his life during his transition from a doctor to a patient. This is honestly worth a read and reminded me that there is so much more to life than medicine; it’s a must for those who are feeling overwhelmed with the application process or going through the stress of exams, because it can really help put things into perspective.

3. Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind

Although this book isn’t actually aimed at medical students or healthcare professionals, it’s still something I’d recommend. Sapiens is one of the denser texts (and it’s sequel, ‘Homo Deus’) on my reading list and follows the history of humans, from the evolution of more archaic human species up to our existence in the 21st Century.

Harari argues that the main reason why we have been so successful as a species is due to our ability to cooperate in massive numbers. This apparently is possible because we come together based on our belief in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, money, and human rights. This book is thought-provoking and provides arguments which really raise the question on whether it is actually feasible to have a completely unbiased society.

4. Bad Science

Definitely one of the more light-hearted reads, I think this book is a perfect example of the importance of practicing evidence-based medicine. (Hint; it’s worth having a read up on what evidence-based medicine actually is, as it is something that may pop up during MMI stations)! As the title suggests, this book is about all of the 'bad science' we are constantly exposed to by the media and during advertising. Goldacre uses this book as a platform to pick apart some of the lengths we go to in the name of healthcare, from the use of placebo medicine to homeopathy - Goldcare even manages to explore some of the misleading wording used by cosmetic ads to sell their healthcare products. Even though this was published over a decade ago, it’s still relevant to students today, and uses cases such as Andrew Wakefield and his MMR controversy to highlight some of the consequences of the public being misinformed.

5. Evil Beyond Belief

Another book that might be worth a read if you’re preparing for interviews! ‘Evil Beyond Belief’ is a biography of Harold Shipman, a Manchester-based GP accused of murdering up to 300 of his patients. Shipman is often known as Britain’s most infamous serial killer and is a perfect example of the disastrous consequences of a doctor who abuses the trust of his patients. Although it’s not absolutely necessary, applicants are expected to have some background knowledge about healthcare, the news and the NHS. The case had major implications on the importance of a doctor-patient relationship, as well attitudes towards failing systems such as death certification. I couldn’t put this book down when I initially started reading it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoy reading about true crime stories.

That was the last of my top 5 books for medschool applicants to read, but if you’ve already gotten through them, or if those didn’t appeal to you, then don’t worry! These are some of my other favourite reads that didn’t make it into my top five.

  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

  • The Man Who mistook his Wife for a Hat

  • In Stitches

  • House of God

  • Where there is No Doctor- A Village Healthcare Handbook

Whilst I think all of these books are fantastic, please don’t feel like you HAVE to read one of these books before you apply to university, and don’t only read them for the sake of adding it onto your personal statement! Read these books because they can provide more of an insight into a career as a doctor, as well as being able to touch on themes such as breaking bad news to patients and how even the most senior doctors can struggle to get the balance right between improving the survival time of a patient vs. maintaining a good quality of a patient’s life. You never know, the themes and opinions which you might pick out from these books could help you when you’re much further along your career!

This piece was written by our resident tutor, Niha Hussain.

This piece was reviewed by Dr Pooja Devani, @step2med.

As always, please do not hesitate to email us for advice on

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