Hit the books

5 must-read books for medical students

These medically relevant non-fiction books are moving, scientific and relevant to growth and development as a physician in training.


If the mountains of information medical school provides have not caused you to lose interest in reading for enjoyment, this column is for you. Even if you don’t feel like you can read another word, sometimes an inspiring reminder by way of creative storytelling or reflections from a physician/author can be impactful and rejuvenating, helping to remind us of our purpose and personal motivation for going into medicine.

Below are concise reviews of five medically relevant non-fiction books that are moving, scientific and relevant to growth and development as a physician in training.

The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human‘ by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD

I always found it fascinating when a professor would take an aside from the scientific details and share stories of fundamental discoveries and relevant historical figures. Such stories constitute the entirety of this incredible compilation of scientific history. Imbued with fascinating anecdotes and insights that undoubtedly required countless hours of rigorous research and historical data gathering, Dr. Mukherjee unveils the stories of the most important discoveries in cell biology.

“The Song of the Cell” describes how our knowledge of the body’s structural and functional unit has changed over time. As I read, I was repeatedly awestruck at Dr. Mukherjee’s ability to frame scenes of history in a masterfully compelling way. Furthermore, woven into key timeline events are stories of his own patients, research and discoveries, including his own triumphs and failures. The final chapters demonstrate how far we have come in our understanding of cell biology, but are also honest regarding the depth and breadth of answers we still seek.

Heart: A History‘ by Sandeep Jauhar, MD

No matter what specialty of medicine you’re interested in, the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the heart are foundational concepts for all physicians to know. “Heart: A History” takes the reader on a fascinating journey into the world of cardiology, including unique cases, intense situations, scientific breakthroughs, acts of legislation and societal movements. It also includes the author’s own journey as a patient with coronary artery disease.

Dr. Jauhar’s writing is concise yet captivating. A cardiology program director at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, he intersperses metaphorical, reflective prose with passages in which he teaches with clinical clarity.

“The heart in disease was best understood as a complicated pump,” Dr. Jauhar writes. “Everything depends on pressure differences.”

Dr. Jauhar provides fascinating insights into key developments in cardiology, intravascular procedures, transplants and advancements in the treatment of heart failure. He describes the evolving cardiology-related science and technology as rapidly changing “as if flowing out of the steady beating of the heart itself.”

“Heart: A History,” will undoubtedly interest and capture the mind and heart of every medical student.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care — and How to Fix It’ by Marty Makary, MD

As a surgical oncologist, researcher and professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Makary became interested in deciphering the problems facing the American health care system. Dr. Makary writes about his experience traveling across America to investigate why health care has become a bubble culminating in one in five Americans having medical debt in collections.

“The Price We Pay” paints a vivid picture of the business of medicine and its elusive money schemes that he contends must be changed.

In an infuriating indictment of the U.S. health care system, Dr. Makary describes the harmful effects that high prices charged by hospitals have on patients. He cites a study that shows “half of patients with metastatic breast cancer in the United States report being pursued by a collection agency for medical bills.”

Dr. Makary confesses that “as a cancer surgeon, hearing the details made me sick to my stomach. Is this what the noble profession of cancer care has become? Is this how our society now treats breast cancer patients at the end of their life? Not only are these patients dying from breast cancer, they are also facing financial ruin.”

He goes on to argue that if we are to “first, do no harm,” we cannot continue to decimate patients’ financial stability while claiming to help them.

“The Price We Pay” opened my eyes to the severity of the financial mistreatment our patients face. At times, it made me feel like the situation seems hopeless, dominated by factors out of our control. However, Dr. Makary closes with a message of hope – that the movement to restore medicine to its mission is alive and well, and we can all participate in a mission that can rebuild the public trust and save our country from the crushing cost of health care.

Physician Leadership: The 11 Skills Every Doctor Needs to Be an Effective Leaderby Karen Nichols, DO

We always hear that physicians are supposed to be leaders, but what exactly does that mean in day-to-day practice? Written by renowned physician leader and AOA Past President Karen Nichols, DO, “Physician Leadership” is an important book. I have had the opportunity to meet Dr. Nichols and hear her speak. She is a powerful leader. The book outlines 11 true principles of physician leadership with examples from real-world situations and scenarios.

As Dr. Nichols puts it, “you will learn foundational leadership essentials that every physician needs to master to transform themselves from a highly motivated novice leader into an effective, skilled and productive leader.”

I loved the structure and interactive aspect of the book. At the end of each chapter, there is a potent synopsis of the key ideas as well as sample questions, exercises and a bibliography of the pertinent literature. “Physician Leadership” condenses Dr. Nichols’ research and personal experience into a concise and helpful handbook, making it the perfect resource for physicians or physicians-in-training.

Editor’s note: Read more about Dr. Nichols’ book in this article from The DO Book Club.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High’ by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler and Ron McMillan

“Crucial Conversations” is an important book for all professionals, but especially medical trainees. It draws our attention to the defining moments that shape our lives, relationships and world. It provides practical advice and real-world examples demonstrating how to hone your ability to handle tough interpersonal situations. It trains the reader to prepare for high-stakes situations, transform anger and hurt feelings into powerful dialogue, make it safe to talk about almost anything and to become persuasive, not abrasive.

In medicine, the stakes are always high. Indeed, we are in the profession of sickness and health, and we cannot take that lightly. I have found the tools in this book to be helpful and powerful in my interpersonal interactions between peers, other health care professionals and patients.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The DO Book Club, Nov. 2022: What Doctors Feel, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, A Christmas Carol

A guide to medical terminology


  1. J Long

    I would add “Being Mortal” by Gwande , “The Best Care Possible “ by Byock and yes , “The House of God” because we all need a Fatman in training.

  2. Lawrence I Silverberg

    Very interesting selections and especially helpful for students
    (in a bibliotherapeutic manner). Maybe a course in the first or second year could be established to discuss/debrief students on their future challenges and what changes have been made (under evidence based). I would personally like to see books about patients like Tuesday with Morrie, Brain on Fire, Bear Town and etc.
    Happy New Year to All

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