Top reads – books by docs

Maybe you’re looking for a book by someone else who feels the same. Or looking for a medic that has changed careers to something more creative? Here are some books written by fellow doctors that are worth a read.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

Dr Paul Kalanithi was an extraordinarily talented man. His first love was with words and philosophy. He almost pursued a PhD in English literature, before deciding to become a neurosurgeon (as you do). His call to neurosurgery was to understand the mind, and find meaning in life and humanity.

About to complete nearly a decade of neurosurgery training, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He was 36 years old. He died 22 months later.

This memoir is life changing, I feel there is life before and after having read it. You cannot forget the words on these pages. Kalanithi shares his views on life, death, illness, time and medicine. Hauntingly, his manuscript was unfinished at the time of his death and this book was published posthumously. Yet it’s also fitting, as Kalanithi’s time ran short.

There’s this strange feeling of Kalanthi having hidden knowledge on the meaning of life, but those final pages don’t come. Time to go read it again.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)

Out of all the books by medics that I’ve read, this is by far my favourite one. Ex-doctor Adam Kay retells his story of finishing medical school and his gruelling early years in the NHS as an obstetrics and gynaecology trainee. Kay’s humour throughout it all reinforces the adage of “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry”. Told as diary entries, his final entry reveals why he quit and it’s amazing to see how successful he has become outside of medicine. A comedian and best selling author now, Adam Kay proves you can survive if you leave the medical world.

This is Going to Hurt is my number one choice because it’s both hilarious, thought provoking, critical, and brutally honest.

Undoctored: The Story of a Medic Who Ran Out of Patients by Adam Kay (2022)

Adam Kay’s debut novel was a global sensation. At the end of the book, Kay states he quit medicine, but what happened after that? Undoctored: The Story of a Medic Who Ran Out of Patients is what happens next.

A must read for those wanting to leave medicine or anyone in healthcare. Kay’s book is hilarious, sobering, brave, vulnerable and so honest. It starts off in anatomy with Kay dissecting a cadaver and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

He speaks of how he quit medicine, ended his marriage, came out and the journey between leaving his stable job to pursue writing.

Kay lays it all on the table, sharing his struggles with PTSD, an eating disorder and being sexually assaulted.

Another book that can’t be put down. Thank you Adam Kay.

Going Under by Sonia Henry (2019)

Going Under is a fictional book written by Dr Sonia Henry. Inspired by her years as a junior doctor, it’s clear to everyone who knows, that this novel is more based on fact than fiction. Also at the top of my list because of the amazing sense of humour, and laugh out loud moments. Henry knows how to deal with difficult topics through comedy.

The fact that it’s fiction can leave the reader slightly removed from the horrors that are told, telling yourself that it didn’t really happen. But for everyone who has trained as a junior doctor, you know that the events in the book have happened. Maybe not to “Dr Kitty Holliday” and her friends, but to some medic out there.

Henry is now a GP and author, working around Australia. Her novel is a great read for those who are struggling and need a catharsis. So that you can laugh and say “I’m not alone”.

The Patient Doctor by Ben Bravery (2022)

Dr Bravery’s memoir grips you immediately. His life seems to chronicle almost every obstacle a human can face; from almost being given up for adoption, to being diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer at twenty-eight, struggles with fertility, medical school and then life as a junior doctor.

Bravery’s time as a patient made him wonder why healthcare was the way it was, lacking at times with empathy for those it cares for. So, he decided to become a doctor, and change the system. He bravely is fighting to bring the humanity back to healthcare. His memoir draws attention to the fact that medics go into medicine to “help people”, but often come out the other side jaded and cynical. What happens along the way? And shouldn’t we overhaul medical education and the system to prevent this?

What do you think?

The House of God by Samuel Shem (1978)

The House of God by Samuel Shem (a pseudonym by psychiatrist Stephen Bergman) is dark and disturbing at times. It’s a satirical novel based on Shem’s experiences as an intern in Beth Israel Hospital (a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School).

You may wonder why it features in this list. Most of the women in the hospital are ‘sexy nurses’. The one female doctor in the novel is Jo, who everyone hates and ridicules. There are doctors who are people of colour, but they speak poor English and are mistaken as ‘the help’.

I’ve kept it high up on my list because of his raw honesty. The House of God is a fearless work that paved the way for discourse on medical ethics. Bringing to light the rates of junior doctor suicides, mental breakdowns, and the macabre side of medicine. Before this book, doctors were more idealised, and medicine seen as an almost super human profession.

The book’s sexism and racism highlights the importance of being aware of these issues in medicine. We have come a long way, but we are not there yet. It’s still happening. It isn’t an ‘old issue’.

Made For More: Physician Entrepreneurs Who Live Life And Practice Medicine On Their Own Terms compiled by Nneka Unachukwu, MD (2023)

Dr Unachukwu (Dr Una) started her practice in 2010 and was searching for other physicians like her, entrepreneurs. This book is what she was searching for all those years ago. Dr Una started the EntreMD Business School to help empower physicians to create profitable businesses and create a life that they have autonomy over.

With stories from over forty doctors from her EntreMD Business School, see how these physician entrepreneurs overcame fear, self-doubt, lack of experience, and other obstacles to create success on their terms.

The Registrar by Neela Janakiramanan (2022)

Dr Neela Janakiramanan is a reconstructive plastic surgeon and talented writer. This book may be fiction, but it’s based on fact.

As Melanie Cheng says, “I know this story, I’ve lived this story. Now the rest of Australia will know it too”.

Every doctor can empathise with the journey of young Emma Swann, an orthopaedic trainee who has a harrowing first year as a registrar.

Evoking every emotion. I finished the book in tears.

If you’re looking for a good read, here it is.

Caution: trigger warning – suicide and medical error. This book may be difficult for those currently struggling within medicine.

One Curious Doctor by Hilton Koppe (2022)

Dr Hilton Koppe worked for decades as a country GP in NSW. After around 40 years of vicarious trauma through his work, he was diagnosed with PTSD, leading to sudden retirement.

Koppe’s book is proof that there’s strength in vulnerability. He bravely bares all, speaking about diaspora, witnessing his mother’s last breath and his struggle with PTSD.

This memoir is a great read for medical students and doctors, to get curious and dig deeper into what it means to be not only a doctor, but a human being.

If you want to leave or are leaving medicine, it’s particularly poignant. Hilton speaks of the shame he felt when putting down his stethoscope and the subsequent struggle with his identity afterwards.

Thank you Hilton Koppe.

Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota (2021)

Dr Yumiko Kadota is an Australian ‘recovering doctor’ who was on path to become a plastic surgeon. Kadota was talented, hard working, an empath who truly cared about her patients. Her book is a memoir, starting from the very beginning. It chronicles her way through childhood, to medical school, to her early trainee years. After ruthless on call hours, Kadota ended up crashing her car, losing control of her bowels and hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. She then goes ‘Eat Pray Love’ style to Bali to recuperate.

This book touches on the issues of sexism and racism in medicine, which unfortunately do still exist. The reason why I have it placed here is because of the importance of knowing about the issues women and people of colour face in health care. Also of the brutal hours expected to work as a doctor, especially for aspiring surgeons.

I appreciate Yumiko’s bravery and courage in coming forward publicly with her difficult experiences.

Awareness is the first step in change, and I think Yumiko has done a lot to start discourse in the hardships all junior doctors face.

Kill as Few Patients as Possible: And Fifty-Six Other Essays on How to Be the World’s Best Doctor by Oscar London (2008)

This short book by Oscar London MD, WBD – WBD as in ‘world’s best doctor’, is a satirical piece that is both hilarious and moving.

The real author, who writes under the pseudonym Oscar London, is witty and insightful. It’s a quick read as you won’t be able to put the book down.

He discusses the struggles of being a doctor, of making mistakes and living with error.

London ‘shares 57 rules to live by that are tongue-in cheek but also with pearls of truth, such as: “if you can’t save your patient’s life, find someone who can” and “avoid hospital meetings like the plague”.

His rule 13 “When You Make a Mistake So Horrible It’s to Die Over, Don’t” stood out to me.

I have blundered horribly and no one can make me pay more than the price I exact from myself…As a doctor, I must keep myself intact while I wall off the horror of human imperfection. Until the next time.

Oscar London

Worth a read.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande (2002)

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science is a well composed book with surgical accuracy. His writing precision mirrors his likely exactness when wielding a scalpel. Dr Gawande’s book is one that is more like a case study.

Gawande explores the taboo topic of medical errors, surgical complications, and diagnosis mysteries. I particularly respect the chapter on medical errors, and his take on the subject:

“The fact is that virtually everyone who cares for hospital patients will make serious mistakes, even commit acts of negligence, every year. For this reason, doctors are seldom outraged when the press reports yet another medical horror story. They usually have a different reaction: That could be me. The important question isn’t how to keep bad physicians from harming patients, it’s how to keep good physicians from harming patients.”

Atul Gawande – Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

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