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The Best Nonrequired Reading for 8 Medical Student Clerkships

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The transition from the second year of medical school to the third year (or, for those with a less classical curricula organization, the transition from pre-clerkship to the wards and patient care) is one of the starkest transitions in all of medical education. With Step 1 and the long hours of lectures and reading behind them, students begin the journey into clinical medicine, which, for most, is the reason they first decided to become a physician.

Although there is still plenty of “book knowledge“ to be learned, students will find most of their learning occurring in the clinical context. This can be every bit as demanding and time-consuming as the first two years, but the opportunity to care for patients frequently offsets the time spent purely studying. With this newfound chance to interact with real people, and with less total time spent reading than the first two years, medical students may be looking forward to opportunities to read something that’s not a textbook for the first time in a while. Not only can this be a good break from the clinical work, but can additionally serve to illuminate clinical information with the students trying to process. So below is my list of the best “non-required” reading for medical student clerkships:

Surgery: Better, Atul Gawande

Gawande, who has been writing essays for such esteemed publications as The New Yorker for the past two decades, has published four books, all of them worthwhile for all doctors. For students on surgery or those interested in surgery, however, his books are a must-read. He has an unassuming writing style which is both extremely readable and amazingly descriptive, and he makes incredible observations about the way medicine works in the 21st century. This book reads as a series of related essays, making it a great choice for a student who might only have a few hours of daylight each day in which they aren’t at the hospital.

Family Medicine: Every Patient Tells a Story, Lisa Sanders

Primary care, especially outpatient family medicine, is perhaps more burdened by administrative issues (billing, insurance hassles, compressed appointment time, documentation) than any other specialty. To fight that, and return to the heart of what good medicine is about, Lisa Sanders writes about the power of listening and trying to solve the problems presented by patients. This challenge is what drew so many doctors to medicine, and for students who may feel overwhelmed by the fast-paced family medicine offices, a welcome reminder to listen carefully to one’s patients.

OB/GYN: The Doctor Stories, William Carlos Williams

Although Dr. Williams is known in many circles as a poet, his stories here illuminate some of the highlights of his long medical career. Williams was a true generalist, working at times as an internist, a pediatrician, and an obstetrician, and these stories cover the breadth of his medical enterprises. The obstetric stories in this collection, though, are some of the most fascinating and interesting, and they show a different side of medicine we often get to see today; yet the insights remain timeless for those involved in the care of patients.

Pediatrics: The Moral Life of Children, Robert Coles

Coles, a psychiatrist by training, has also had a quite a career, including writing over 40 books, teaching junior high school, and mentoring college students in addition to various other teaching positions. Although not a pediatrician, his insights on growth, development, and humanity are poignant and relevant to all people, but especially physicians. He has a special regard for children which is clear in his writing and may shed light on aspects of pediatrics that run deeper than simply diagnosis of disease.

Internal Medicine: Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s most Storied Hospital, David Oshinsky

Hospital medicine in the United States is probably best represented by New York City’s public hospital, Bellevue. Oshinsky is an historian who covers the hospital and by doing so discusses medicine’s advancements, public health, medical education, and the role of doctors in society. As students learn to navigate the wards — including the unique challenges of practicing medicine in a hospital setting — they may find value in reading about one of the most iconic places for its development and practice.

Psychiatry: Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan

Among the most prolific doctor-writers in general are psychiatrists, who by nature are given to thinking critically and seriously about issues and frequently interested in communicating them. Rarer is the account of a psychiatric patient from the first-person, especially one who suffered from true psychosis. Cahalan, a journalist, developed a disease which rendered her psychotic for a period before diagnosis and treatment were made, and she has the sharp eye of a reporter as she dissects her own experiences and symptoms. This book is a rare look into the mind of someone struggling to make sense of reality, and the hopeful ending makes the suspenseful story even more exciting.

Neurology: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

One would be hard-pressed to find a more highly regarded doctor-writer than the late Oliver Sacks, an English neurologist known for his candid stories about some of the most fascinating patients. Neurological diseases can cause such a wide and disarming array of symptoms, it is often difficult for medical students to make sense of them. Reading Sacks puts these feelings in context and reminds the reader of how fascinating medicine can be, and how joyous it can be to take care of patients.

Emergency Medicine: How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman

Groopman’s introduction to physician cognition provides valuable insights for all doctors, but might be most useful for those on the frontlines of evaluating new patients. Physicians and students in the ER must make quick judgments about who is sick and who is not, and quickly decide a potential diagnosis and what testing needs done. This high-volume, high-stress environment can be a place where cognitive errors abound — such as anchoring bias and other biases — and by giving them a name and discussing how to fight them, Groopman offers something useful for student doctors to consider.

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.

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