What are the Best Books for Medical Students?

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Hippocrates, the great Ancient Greek physician, gave us the Hippocratic Oath. The basic message that most remember is “first do no harm.”   A basic path to harm is ignorance.

“There are, in effect, two things, to know and to believe one knows; to know is science; to believe one knows is ignorance.”

Hippocrates

 The medical student spends years of study to avoid ignorance.  Medicine can be a life-and-death situation. Anything involving the health and well-being of others requires special care.

The study of medicine, for doctors, nurses, and a range of other important parts of the medical team, involves two basic parts.  Book learning and learning by doing.  Our concern here is the first part, which involves a range of topics that span the knowledge of human medicine.

Read All About It

My purpose here is to provide some of the best books out there for Medical Students.  I will provide you with a link to where you can buy them, providing basic information to help you decide if they are good for your needs.   

Things to look for: the author’s expertise, the specific subject matter, what others are saying about them, the skillset of the intended audience, and any deficits that might be red flags.

TOP TEN BOOKS FOR MEDICAL STUDENTS 

1. Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice by Susan Standring 

You might be a fan of Grey’s Anatomy. That’s the television series.  

Gray’s Anatomy is a reference book of human anatomy written by Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter, first published in 1858.  It has reached 41 editions (so far).  

This edition has been revised and updated throughout, reflecting the very latest understanding of clinical anatomy from field leaders around the world. Your purchase entitles you to access the website until the next edition is published, or until the current edition is no longer offered for sale by Elsevier, whichever occurs first.  

Possible Problems: The kindle edition is hard to read.  

2.  First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 by Tao Le, Vikas Bhushan, Matthew Sochat

First aid is an important subject for medical students. This is a popular resource to help pass the USMLE Step 1 exam. The book is subdivided by topic (biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology, etc.).   A student can learn straight from the book or use it as a reference resource.  The material is compiled in a way geared to ease memory.

Possible Problems: Limited space in the book for note taking.  Lacks some material helpful for some classes.  Good for review; not as good for first-time learning for newcomers.  

3.  Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine by Joseph Loscalzo, Anthony Fauci, et. al.

Internal medicine is a medical specialty dealing with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of internal diseases.

This is a two-volume textbook that is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative books on internal medicine and has been described as the “most recognized book in all of medicine.”  Yes, THAT Anthony Fauci is one of the editors.

Possible Problem: The word “comprehensive” is one way to describe these two volumes, which in total are thousands of pages long. This can be rather overwhelming. A more condensed volume might be best for some students.

4.  Textbook of Biochemistry for Medical Students by D.M. Vasudevan

This book is a detailed textbook without being boring.  Students who feel that biochemistry is too technical should like this book.

An example of a hack used to make it easier to read is color coding to represent enzyme names instead of numbers.

Chapter summaries, exam questions for review, and useful appendixes are provided.

Possible Problems: Some found earlier editions better.

5.  Bates’ Guide To Physical Examination and History Taking by Lynn S. Bickley et. al.

A basic part of being a doctor is the physical examination and taking down the medical history of the patient.  This book provides the techniques for successful physical examinations. It has step-by-step guides set forth in an easy-to-follow format.

Updated material includes photographs, illustrations, and references as well as important approaches for persons who identify as LGBTQ, persons with physical disabilities, and diverse populations throughout the life cycle.  

Possible Problems: Too many typos.

6.  Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

This book is written by a leading British neurosurgeon, the subject of two documentaries.

Do No Harm (hat tip to Hippocrates) discusses what it feels like to have a person’s life in your hands. How do you make a possibly life-altering decision, one that might be wrong?  Sometimes, you will have to make the “the lesser of two evils” decision. 

The book also talks about the joys and wonders of surgery and healthcare.  An important book for medical students to be reminded about the human part of medicine.  

Possible Problems: Some thought the book focused too much on the negative and at times used too raw or explicit language.

7. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary

I have long found Merriam Webster to be a top-line dictionary with clear and comprehensive definitions.  It is the one I have on my own desk.  

This is a version providing medical vocabulary and a guide to the essential language of medicine and healthcare.  This new edition provides up-to-date coverage of terminology from all major fields of medical practice and research.  More than 39,000 medical terms with pronunciations.

Possible Problems: The vast number of terms means the hard copy version has small text that can be hard for some to read.  Less an issue for e-book versions. 

8.  Medical Terminology by David Andersson, M. Mastenbjörk M.D., S. Meloni M.D.

Every profession has its own jargon. This book is a great way to memorize, pronounce and understand medical terms.  The book helps you break down complicated words and terms by focusing on the important word parts — common prefixes, suffixes, and root words.  And, it provides multiple choice review tests to make sure you remember what you learned.  

Possible Problems: A few found this book too limited in the information provided and wanted more detail.  For those who want more than an “introduction,” it might be deemed lacking.

9. The Intern Blues by Robert Marion

Dr. Marion asked three of his interns to keep a careful diary over the course of a year.  Andy, Mark, and Amy provided personal accounts of the lessons they learned during their residency.  This includes lessons dealing with sick children, child abuse, and dealing with the AIDS epidemic.  This is an important real-life account of the human side of medicine.  

Possible Problems: A few readers did not care for the point of view (deemed to be whining or at least overly negative) of the three residents. Perhaps, skim it first to see if you like it.

10.  Playing Doctor by John Lawrence 

Dr. John Lawrence provides a humorous as well as an honest and insightful look at his path toward becoming a doctor in this three-part autobiographical series.  

The three books are: Medical School: Stumbling Through with Amnesia, Residency: Blundering along with Imposter Syndrome, and Chief Resident: Fumbling Towards Medical Practice.

Possible Problems: Some people did not find the author’s sense of humor amusing and were bored with what they saw as a too standard account of being a medical student and resident.  

BRIAN’S PICKS 

My nephew, Brian Lynch, is a doctor just a few years out of medical school.  I checked in with Dr. Brian to see what books he found (and continues to find) useful for medical students.   Here are his picks.

1.  Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy by Frank H. Netter

Frank H. Netter, MD provides clear, detailed depictions of the human body.

This is a basic illustrative anatomy book.  It has gone through at least eight versions, but the basics have remained the same.  The book provides students and clinical professionals who are learning anatomy, participating in a dissection lab, sharing anatomy knowledge with patients, or refreshing their anatomy knowledge with a helpful resource.  

The Enhanced eBook version is included with the purchase of the linked edition.

You also might like: Netter’s Anatomy Coloring Book

2.  Board Review Series (aka BRS Series) 

This is a series of books that provide a concise summary of a range of medical subspecialties including pharmacology, gross anatomy, cell biology, and many more.  

Each book is written by experts in the field.  They provide the material in convenient summary form with theoretical and practical applications.  It is basically a series of textbooks.  Updated editions are available for each as are e-book versions.   

3. Fundamentals of Pathology by Hussain A. Sattar 

Pathology is the study of the causes and effects of disease or injury.  Fundamentals of Pathology is a textbook version of Dr. Husain A. Sattar’s extensive teaching experience, expressed in his clear, principle-based, and engaging teaching style.

A medical student also can access online lectures.  

4.  Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology by John Hall and Michael Hall 

Physiology is the scientific study of functions and mechanisms in a living system.

This is a bestselling (latest is the 14th Edition) text providing physiology relevant to clinical and pre-clinical students.  It has more than 1,200 full-color drawings and diagrams. 

The most recent version has online access to interactive figures, new audio of heart sounds, animations, self-assessment questions, and more.  

SOME MORE BOOKS FOR MEDICAL STUDENTS

1. How Doctors Think By Jerome Groopman, MD

Medical school makes you think like a doctor. But, what happens when you then deal with patients, and both sides see things differently? It can result in miscommunication, including at the key point of first contact. This book helps bridge the gap, providing information on how a doctor thinks, and how to make sure both sides do not miscommunicate. 

2. Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders

It is a common thing in a medical drama. Some patient is sick and it is a mystery why.  The doctor has to make a diagnosis.  

This book explains this often dramatic process, a medical detective story with case studies.  Dr. Sanders explains the challenges of the physical exam, the pitfalls of doctor-to-doctor communication, the vagaries of tests, and the dangers of diagnostic errors.

3. Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes from a Medical Life by Suzanne Koven

In 2017, Dr. Suzanne Koven published an essay describing the challenges faced by female physicians, including her own personal struggle with “imposter syndrome”―a long-held secret belief that she was not smart enough or good enough to be a “real” doctor. 

The memoir is an expansion of this well-received essay.  The book covers her struggles in becoming and being a doctor as well as getting pregnant, caring for her patients, and dealing with COVID-19.  It provides important insights into the mixed feelings and doubts a medical student and young doctor will have.

4. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales By Oliver Sacks

This is the widely popular book (the author was played in one movie by Robin Williams), which is a collection of case histories by the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks.   

A neurologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses, treats, and manages disorders of the brain and nervous system.  This book provides some fascinating stories but also expresses the human side of being a doctor as well. These are not just interesting academic accounts. The empathy of the author, while he puzzles through each case, is a major reason it is worth reading.

5. The Soul of a Doctor by Susan Pories, M.D., Sachin H. Jain, and Gordon Harper, M.D.

This book brings together the stories of 44 doctors-in-training, all written by medical students. They provide lessons both emotional and medical, from learning how to communicate and empathize with those afflicted by illness to ways to ease suffering and loss.  

The book shows how medical students have to balance medical protocol with patient needs.  A good way for medical students to go into things with an open eye of how things will really work, guided by those who lived through it all.

6. The House of God by Samuel Shem

The book is a work of fiction, but the author for three decades was a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty.  This provided the insights for this hilarious (in a dark humor sort of way) tale of new residents having their ideals clash with the realities of life as young doctors.  

This book “is a must-read for all trainees. Good humor is needed these days in medicine,” said Alex Ding, MD, an interventional radiologist.  “As a patient advocate with an interest in social justice,” this is one of the novels Dionne Hart, MD, a psychiatrist, recommends.  

Fans of this book also should check out the sequel, Man’s 4th Best Hospital.

Conclusion

Good luck with your medical studies. These books show the range of materials that is necessary to fight ignorance. Being a medical student is a mix of knowing the science as well as the realities of being a doctor. And, finding a chance to have some fun, including maybe checking out a fictional account providing its own truths about life in medicine.