A Resident Shares His Must-Read Books for Fellow Residents

Residency is a complex time in the development of new physicians. Having graduated from medical school and earned our degrees – bearing the coveted and prestigious title "doctor" — we still find ourselves at the very outset of our training, recognizing and sometimes being gently (or forcefully) reminded of how much we have to learn. We are frequently poised between knowing the right answer or having access to the knowledge but not yet knowing how to apply it.

It is further complicated by the fact that we are no longer students, technically, but continue to have lectures, didactics, mandatory reading assignments, and occasional tests and exams throughout our careers; we are expected to stay informed and on top of new literature and guidelines within our specialty; and we are usually expected to complete scholarly work of our own.

Because of this tension, residents may find, as I have, the desire and need to read something besides an academic journal. Residency can feel isolating and reading is one way to find solidarity – to resonate with someone whose experience mirrors our own.

As this is a time of immense professional growth, it makes sense that we would augment the academic and technical learning with stretching our capacity for empathy, imagination, creativity, and knowledge, which can be done by reading books written for a broader audience and in a softer language than a textbook. Given this, I've compiled a list of books I specifically recommend for residents, especially in the first year or two. This list is by no means exhaustive. Rather, I want to highlight the books which I feel have made me a better doctor, and maybe have the capacity to help others as well.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, MD

Since this book came out in early 2016, I have seen it on almost every list of must-read books for medical students and physicians. Having read it, I understand why. This short memoir follows the brief but impactful life of a neurosurgeon with a terminal illness diagnosed unexpectedly near the end of his fellowship training. It contains beautiful and sometimes heart-breaking insights into life, especially a life in medicine. I have since gifted it to several colleagues, and have made a note to re-read it every few years.

Better by Atul Gawande

A staple of such lists as well. I've selected it because of how it carefully balances early-career reflections and ideas that also carry real insights and truths borne from experience. Gawande seems to look closely at his world and his distilled reflections are a pleasure to read. Most of the essays in Better center on surgery, but like all good essays, the insights are not limited to only physicians, but to core human traits, making this a great read for just about anyone.

House of God by Samuel Shem, MD

No list of books for residents would be complete without Samuel Shem's classic satire. I hesitated to include this book, primarily because so much of it is outdated and much of it is unnecessarily gratuitous. However, I think Shem gets at a truth about what it is like to work a job in which you care primarily for other people, and there is something universal about that. His take on it is sardonic, humorous, and sometimes dark, but that perspective does help reveal some truths that are hard to talk about otherwise. 

Intern by Sandeep Jauhar

Sandeep Jauhar has been better known for his later books, such as Doctored in which he expresses his own disillusionment with American health care from a physician's perspective. In Heart: A History, he recounts the scientific advances that have brought Cardiology to its current place. He also writes regularly for the New York Times and he is a strong advocate for what medicine and health care should be within society. This first book, Intern, chronicles his time learning to navigate residency. As expected, it's a great read for new residents looking for some solidarity in their experience and Jauhar's excellent writing makes this book accessible and relatable for new physicians.

Hot Lights Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins, MD

Michael Collins is an orthopedic surgeon and this is his best-selling memoir about his time as a surgical resident at the Mayo Clinic. He offers profound aphorisms on learning and working and healing, but what really makes the book is his wit. He tells fantastic stories which are funny, but which also always point back to a love of medicine and the privilege of training, even when it doesn't feel so powerful. 

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky 

This 2017 book covers, as the subtitle suggests, over 300 years at Bellevue Hospital. The book uses this iconic hospital as a lens through which to investigate something even bigger: the history of medicine in America. This read gives a lot of fascinating context to where medicine came from and where it has brought us and is great supplemental reading for residents because it provides something that’s often missing in training: context. This context includes the evolution of medical education, and I found it rewarding to learn the stories upon which our current system is built. 

Becoming a Doctor by Lee Gutkind

This collection of stories edited by Lee Guntkind (editor of Creative Nonfiction) consists of just that: creative nonfiction stories and essays about what it means to become a doctor. These stories emphasize the challenges, learning, and growth that happens in medical school and shortly after, and they have the extra advantage of being collected from a wide variety of writers. This diversity of voices demonstrate the relatability of the experience of medical education, even when it might otherwise feel isolating. Because it's a collection of short pieces, this is one that can easily be read in disjointed segments, which most busy residents will find valuable. 

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman

I've previously recommended Jerome Groopman's investigation into the cognitive processes of doctors for medical students, and I would add it here for residents. Groopman is a good writer, and he covers in this book the interesting idea that physician thought processes and decision-making aren't as organized or precise or even well-controlled as we might like to believe they are. Recognizing cognitive biases and knowing how they can impact our work as doctors makes us less likely to become trapped by them, and might expand our capacity for creative and thorough problem solving, which is essential for the good practice of medicine.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This might be my most recommended book, as I suggest it to just about any medical student, resident, or generally curious person I encounter. Sacks is, for me, the gold standard of clinical writing; his vignettes are interesting, his insights are profound, and his prose is beautiful. He treats his patients with a tenderness and respect that we can all aspire to, and he examines his own inadequacies and failings just as kindly. This book may serve as a good reminder to a worn-out resident of the fascination and curiosity that first drove them to consider becoming a physician, and provide another example of a physician we can all aspire to become. 

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear by Danielle Ofri

Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, knows what it is to live in the two worlds of writing and medicine, and this book is one of the products of that relationship. She covers here the important concepts of doctor-patient communication, written for a general audience and thus grounded in the practical implication of that communication. Residents will benefit from the reminders in this book about how to really listen and make sense of what patients say, with the knowledge that interpersonal communication remains the central way in which we make decisions in medicine. 

Brent Schnipke, MD is a writer based in Dayton, OH. He received his MD from Wright State University in 2018 and is a first-year Psychiatry resident at Wright State. His professional interests include writing, medical humanities, and medical education. He is also a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

What books have you read that have supplemented your formation as a physician? Share in the comments below!

More from Op-Med