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.

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.

Mount Misery by Samuel Shem (1997)

Dr Roy Basch is back in the unofficial sequel to The House Of God as a psychiatry trainee at Mount Misery. Mount Misery is a prestigious Mental Health Hospital set in a picturesque setting, at the foot of green hills in New England. Dr Basch’s first year as a psychiatry trainee is harrowing.

Dr Basch thought moving from The House of God to Mount Misery was a step in the right direction, where he could truly connect and heal others. What he finds is something completely different, a place even more challenging than The House of God.

He witnesses more harm than good for patients, suicide, murder, abuse, the focus on theory rather than people, pathologising normal human reactions to trauma, and the preference of pharmaceuticals over helping people.

This book is worth a read, to help reflect on you as a human and your own practice in and outside medicine.

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).

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’.

The term gomer (Get Out Of My ER) became well known after this book as well as the famous laws of The House of God that are still said today, like:

  • “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.”
  • “Age + BUN = Lasix dose”

I’ve kept The House of God high up on my list because of the 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 sexism and racism in The House of God 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’.

Put Your Feet in the Dirt, Girl by Sonia Henry (2023)

Dr Sonia Henry’s second novel is powerful. A memoir about her locuming as a GP in the bush after experiencing heartbreak in the city…this book offers more than you’d expect.

Beyond a memoir, Sonia shines a light on the inequity of health in Australia. The dirty (not so) secret of our developed nation is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is well below that of non-Indigenous Australians. Sonia works in the midst of it, living in a caged house at one point, holding a stick to bat off wild dogs, and wondering how this could be…miles away from the health system and reality of Sydney.

Heart wrenching, eye opening, thought provoking, and an exploration into the heart of Australia.

Do yourself a favour and read it, go on now.

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?

Our Hospital by Samuel Shem (2023)

Our Hospital is the fourth book of The Healing Quartet, by Samuel Shem, the author of The House of God. Shem’s four books span 50 years of medicine, from the wild 70s, to the psychotherapy-crazed 80s/90s, to the rise of electronic medical records, and finally to the pandemic that touched us all.

This book unapologetically puts on display the impact of the waves of COVID-19 in New York State, and the United States as a whole.

The lack of PPE, burnout, death, MAGA presidency (affectionally calling the president The Big Mac), and poor administration. Shem fearlessly examines the prioritisation of profit over health. It’s all here.

Our Hospital is different to the first three books. It shifts from the first person perspective of Dr Roy Basch to third person and involves new protagonists. Dr Amy Rose, the Columbian all-rounder, who can successfully manage shoulder dystocia and also intubate someone with severe COVID-19 pneumonitis. Dr Amy keeps her humanity throughout the whole book, and fights to keep the humanity for everyone at Kush Kare Hospital.

The moral of the story and the four books in this Healing Quartet? Sticking together to heal together and keep the humanity in healthcare, for everyone (patients and healthcare professionals alike).

TW: As someone who completed their internship in 2020, and rest of junior doctor years dealing with COVID-19, it’s definitely a book that can bring forth difficult emotions. We have lived this story. It’s close to our hearts. Let’s go easy on ourselves as we read it. We’ve been through tough times, and we are hopping for better times ahead.

Man’s 4th Best Hospital by Samuel Shem (2019)

The ‘true’ sequel to iconic The House of God. Man’s 4th Best Hospital seems to be the answer to all of the controversy of Shem’s fist book.

This novel has Dr Basch back, but he’s different, older and wiser. More empathetic to others and patients.

The book covers many difficult topics of modern medicine: gender parity, racism, burnout, suicide, addiction, health inequity, gun violence, big pharma, the dangers of a privatised healthcare system, the lack of humanity in healthcare, and the negative effects of electronic medical records.

It’s interesting to read the progression of Dr Basch and the healthcare system as a whole.

From the wild overtly racist & sexist 70s, to the psychoanalytic 80/90s, to the rise of the machine in medicine in the 2000s. Shem’s novels are a reflection of the times they are written in.

The most interesting thing I found were the concepts of putting the ‘human back in medicine’ and the importance of human relationships. Putting humanity back into healthcare is, fortunately, a flag that is being carried by many right now, including Dr Ben Bravery and his first book, The Patient Doctor. The importance of community and connection is definitely key, I hope to see our community continue to strengthen.

In every moment, especially difficult moments, take refuge not in yourself but in relationship.

Samuel Shem – Man’s 4th Best Hospital

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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