Beth Gamulka: Books every doctor (and maybe every patient) should read

Beth GamulkaBefore I went to medical school, I spent 4 wonderful years at college studying the history of science and medicine.  I especially loved the books on my reading lists that captured a story about a past medical discovery or epidemic.  While I had no medical expertise at the time and simply wanted to do passably well on the MCAT so some medical school would accept me, the stories of the flu epidemic of 1918, the discovery of penicillin, the Wexner report and the development of formal medical education captivated me.  They gave me context and allowed me to understand the path the practice of medicine had taken prior to my interest in the profession.

Medical school, residency, medical practice and parenthood do not leave much free time for pleasure reading.  While it is still wonderful to escape with a novel, I still gravitate to non-fiction works that focus on medicine.  A few years ago, I gave a lecture to my colleagues about books that every doctor should read.  While it is still prudent to keep updated on new research to help our patients, these books are designed to help physicians (and non-physicians)  maintain perspective.  Here are a few of them:

History of Medicine:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a well-researched account of the history of HeLa cancer cell line and the woman whose cancer launched a medical revolution.
  • Bad Blood by James H. Jones is history of the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment that the Public Health Service ran from 1932 until 1972. African-American men with syphilis were studied over decades to learn about the natural course of the disease. However, they were never treated with penicillin even after the antibiotic’s availability increased in the 1940s.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a biography of cancer. It is long and detailed and clearly shows how recently many advances in cancer treatment have developed and how little oncologists really knew even 50 years ago.

Meditations on the Profession:

  • Complications by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and prolific writer, is a collection of honest essays written during and after surgical training.
  • The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher by Lewis Thomas was his third collection of well-written and thoughtful essays reflecting back on his career as a successful academic and physician. I remember reading this in high school and deciding to become a physician.
  • The Real Life of a Pediatrician, edited by Perri Klass is a collection of candid stories following the path from student to veteran doctor. While I love every book that Perri Klass has ever written (and can admit that her memoir A Not Entirely benign Procedure allowed me to survive the summer of 1988, also known as the summer of med school applications and MCATs), the many voices in this collection are honest and engaging. Let’s face it: pediatricians are generally nice people and I like reading about them.

Books that can influence the way we practice:

  • Forgive and Remember: Managing Medical Failure by Charles Bosk, follows fictional surgical teams in a teaching hospital and is one of the first books ever written on medical error.
  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, provides a 21st century approach to patient safety using the expertise of the aviation industry.
  • How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman is an extremely honest and thoughtful look at medical error and cognitive error. It explores why doctors succeed and why they err, how they can embrace uncertainty and how patients can help doctors avoid error. I tell every trainee that I teach to read this book in the hopes that s/he will incorporate these learning points in the practice of medicine.

Happy reading!

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