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A medical student’s reading list

Former and current Stanford medical students recommends several nonfiction books — as well as authors —that present science through a humanistic lens.

Editor's note: We've giving our Stanford Medicine Unplugged writers the week off and sharing a recommended reading list penned in 2017 by former contributor Akhilesh Pathipati, MD, MBA. Contributors Orly Farber and Lauren Joseph supplied additional suggestions.

Medical students spend a lot of time reading, whether it's research papers, case vignettes, or of course, First Aid. But amid the pathophysiology and biochemical mechanisms, I've tried to make a point of reading about science through a humanistic lens. Books have been a valuable source of information and inspiration for a career in medicine and a few in particular helped shape my interest in becoming a doctor.

The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil: I first read this book in college, and it singlehandedly made me excited about going into medicine. Although billed as a "biography of cancer," the book is really a collection of biographies about the people who have fought it, including patients, researchers, and clinicians. It reads as an epic battle to not only understand cancer but to conquer human fallibility. And after reading it, I wanted to become a physician to join the effort.

Infinite Vision by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy: Infinite Vision is a story about another seemingly impossible effort -- to cure blindness. It tells the story of Aravind Eye Care, an organization that started as a small clinic in India and grew into the world's largest provider of eye care, all while treating millions of patients for free. It's an incredible story of both medical and business innovation that captures what I hope to do as an MD/MBA.

Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce by Douglas Starr: Blood is a substance that quite literally represents life, and as such, has captured the human imagination since the dawn of civilization. This book is fascinating because it covers many different aspects of medicine, ranging from its place in mythology to the process of research and discovery to the modern industrialization of science. With blood as his premise, Starr narrates an entire history of medicine.

Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, PhD: Although not specifically about medicine, this book is an interesting commentary on the inevitability and importance of mistakes in the scientific process. It reviews the careers of five famous scientists, including Darwin and Einstein, and points out that some of their biggest breakthroughs stemmed from errors and flawed assumptions. In thinking about how to solve difficult problems in medicine, it's comforting to remember that progress often comes from mistakes.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, MD: Kalanithi's memoir is an extraordinarily moving reflection on medicine, the doctor-patient relationship, and the meaning of life. While death is the underlying topic throughout much of the book, it provides a remarkable perspective on how to live.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of excellent books about medicine. All books from Atul Gawande, MD, and Stanford's Abraham Verghese, MD, provide insight into the practice of medicine. Reinventing American Health Care by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, offers a good primer on the U.S. health care system and its challenges (although some of its discussion on health reform is now dated). And as the title suggests, Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, MD, is a nice collection of patient stories.

Other medical students recommend: An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, which describes the big-business side of hospitals, drug pricing, medical testing, and the medical device market; An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, an "unbelievably moving" memoir; and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, an eloquent memoir that weaves together research and personal experience on the subjects of grief and illness. Also worth noting are works by author Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, and JAMA Network's A Piece of My Mind series.

While each of these books has a different topic, they all serve as a source of inspiration for going into medicine. The day-to-day work can sometimes feel mundane: see a patient, prescribe a treatment, move on to the next one. But books like these offer a reminder that medicine is not just a job, it is an effort to address universal problems that affect people across time and space. In becoming a doctor, there is an opportunity to push forward the progression of history. There are few challenges more inspiring than that.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

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