11 Best Books For Medicine Applicants (Essential Reading)

Updated on: December 17, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Books can be a brilliant way to boost your medicine application without it feeling too much like hard work!

You can read a book during your lunch break, by the pool on holiday, or listen to an audiobook at the gym.

Reading (or listening) to some of the books on this list will give you a fascinating insight into how doctors think, show you the breadth of what different specialities in medicine get up to and teach you some scientific principles that underpin the whole of medicine.

I applied to medical school back in 2014 and wrote about these books in my personal statement, talked about them at my interviews and generally enjoyed reading them!

This is in no way a definitive list of every book a medicine applicant should read, nor do you in any way have to read every book on this list, but it will give you some suggestions if you’re looking to pick up your next title.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

Now, the first book on this list I didn’t actually read before I applied to medicine, as it was only published in 2017, but it’s far too good not to include.

Adam Kay worked as a junior doctor between 2004 and 2010, before leaving medicine for a career in comedy and writing.

‘This Is Going To Hurt’ is all about his experiences as a doctor and obstetrics and gynaecology trainee, with his stories ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking within a just few pages.

Despite being a number-one bestselling book, I didn’t think I’d actually find the book that funny reading it as a doctor myself… but boy was I wrong!

Kay writes in a way that’s accessible to everyone, medical or not, as well as adding a depth that made everything in his book all too relatable having worked in the NHS.

He actually came to speak to my class for our graduation from the University of Leicester which was an absolute highlight of the day.

I can honestly say the book is too funny for words whilst also being a poignant reflection on the struggles inherent to working in the NHS.

War Doctor by David Nott

David Nott is a consultant surgeon who has done some seriously cool stuff.

Nott is best known for his volunteer work in disaster and war zones, taking his expert surgical skills to the places they’re needed most.

He’s worked as a surgeon all over the world including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chad, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Sierra Leone and opposition-held areas of Syria.

Within the world of medical response to disasters, he is unquestionably a B.N.O.C.

The book chronicles some of his busiest experiences as a frontline trauma surgeon, operating in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones.

From having his hospital stormed by Syrian jihadis to being held up by child soldiers, it seems as if David Nott has seen and done it all.

If you want a book that will open your eyes to the extremes that medicine can take you, then this is the book for you.

If you want to follow in David Nott’s footsteps then you can find out how to become a surgeon here.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I still remember reading ‘Bad Science’ in my school library and not being able to put it down because of how much I was enjoying it!

The book is all about the dodgy ‘scientific’ practices sold to us in every aspect of our modern lives.

From cosmetics adverts to acupuncture and homoeopathy, Goldacre holds bold marketing claims up to the cold light of strict scientific processes.

I remember one of my favourite parts of the book was were he was talking about publication bias.

Publication bias is where a scientific paper is more likely to be published if it actually shows something interesting. I.e. a treatment was either wildly successful or disastrous, not that it was simply about average and confirmed what we already thought.

The very next page included a diagram showing that research papers about publication bias all suffered from the exact problem they were studying!

There weren’t nearly as many publication bias papers published that showed an average result as would be statistically expected.

Aside from statistical anomalies, Goldacre weaves both hardcore science with sidesplitting sarcasm, making ‘Bad Science’ both an incredibly entertaining and educational read.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

This next book slightly strays away from the ‘classic’ medical books people recommend you read before applying to medicine, but I think it’s worthy to be on the list nonetheless.

Published way back in 1976, ‘The Selfish Gene’ puts forward the argument that the gene is the integral unit of evolution, rather than the organism or the group.

Dawkins uses this theory to explain a huge host of puzzling observations, from the springing of gazelles right in front of predators to why worker bees give up the right to reproduce in favour of working for their queen.

Having been voted the most influential science book of all time, this is a title you just can’t miss off your reading list.

I think the book will provide you with a great backdrop to make sense of both anatomy and physiology as you learn them at medical school, as well as making you think differently about every observed behaviour and action of anything from the fish in your pond to your siblings!

Before reading ‘The Selfish Gene’, I’d never given a huge amount of thought to what the basic unit of selection was that evolution acted upon.

I understood that a fitter, stronger, lion was more likely to pass on their genes than a weaker one, but the book will really put a fine point on exactly how that’s happening and what implications it has for the organism.

Although evolution acting on genes may seem like a given now, when first published ‘The Selfish Gene’ caused “a silent and almost immediate revolution in biology.” (Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed The Way We Think)

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd

Richard Sheperd is a forensic pathologist.

This means he is responsible for carrying out the autopsy after someone gets shot, stabbed or strangled.

To be exact, he’s performed over 23,000 autopsies, including some of the most high-profile cases of recent times; the Hungerford Massacre, the Princess Diana inquiry, and 9/11.

The book is an incredible collection of his most fascinating cases from a lifetime’s work in the field.

It’s like you get to sit down with Sheperd and he tells you all his best, most surprising, most gruesome and heartbreaking stories from a career working with the dead.

The author is also brutally frank about his struggle with PTSD as a result of what he’s had to see.

The work takes an incredible toll on his personal life, but one that he’s willing to pay in order to let justice be done for the dead.

Forensic pathology isn’t for everyone, but by the end of the book I’ve got to say I could certainly see the appeal of the specialty.

An 18-week Sunday Times top 10 bestseller, you won’t be able to put ‘Unnatural Causes’ down until you’ve finished.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks

‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ is an absolute classic that will almost always be brought up in discussions of which books you should read before medical school.

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist and the book is a collection of the case histories of some of the most intriguing patients he came across over his career.

The book gets its title from a patient who suffered from visual agnosia- an inability to recognise objects despite being able to clearly see them.

This led to the patient trying to pick up his wife’s head, thinking that it was his hat, to place it on his head on the way out the door from Sacks’ office.

The book will introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of neurology- where people can forget that their body belongs to them, cease to be able to form new memories and develop hypersensitive senses of smell.

The mind and nervous system is such an incredibly complex system that when things go wrong the signs and symptoms can be highly unique and sometimes incredibly puzzling- it’s in part what I think makes neurology (and psychiatry) so engaging.

Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is a must-read book for anyone looking to understand how human decision-making works.

Although this is another title that’s not tightly constrained within the fields of clinical medicine, it provides a deep dive into the various biases and heuristics that affect our judgment and decision-making on a day-to-day basis.

Kahneman explores the workings of two systems of thought that govern our decision-making processes:

  • System 1- which is fast, intuitive, and emotional.
  • System 2- which is slow, deliberate, and logical.

Kahneman puts forward the argument that the fast thinking system is often the root cause of many of our biases and that the slow thinking system is necessary to counteract these biases.

The book is filled to the brim with the genius and sometimes hilarious experiments the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and his team came up with to test some of these different concepts.

One of my favourites was that of the never emptying soup bowl. Diners at a restaurant had their soup constantly topped up by a secret tube that sat at the bottom of their soup bowl connected to a vat of soup.

Instead of suspecting foul play, the majority of customers simply described the soup as incredibly filling, having not been aware of the large quantity of soup they’d eaten in an attempt to empty the bowl.

The insights that Kahneman provides are relevant to everyone and can be easily extrapolated to many of the high-pressure decisions we have to make when treating patients as doctors.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Written by the British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, ‘Do No Harm’ provides an incredibly personal and insightful look into the life of a brain surgeon, along with the complex ethical, moral, and emotional challenges that come with the job.

Throughout the book, Marsh shares his experiences of performing life-and-death surgeries, whilst also examining the limitations of medicine and the imperfections of our healthcare system.

He reflects on the many successes and failures he has had in his career, including cases where he has had to make difficult decisions about whether or not to operate, as well as how to deal with the aftermath of his choices.

Although absorbing, it can be pretty heavy hitting.

Marsh describes how he absolutely hates having to go and see the patients he wasn’t successful in fully treating. Patients that, despite his best efforts, may have to live a lifetime with serious brain damage.

Behind the captivating descriptions of operating on the human brain, one of the things that stuck out to me was the background sacrifice that neurosurgeons are almost expected to make for their work.

As a neurosurgeon, he’s routinely in the hospital on weekends, even when he’s meant to be off, in order to check up on the patients he operated on over the week.

Marsh’s candid and reflective writing style makes the book a compelling and thought-provoking read and provides a unique perspective on the challenges faced by neurosurgeons and the medical community as a whole.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This next book is actually also written by a neurosurgeon but takes a very different tact.

Paul Kalanithi had his world crumble around him when, aged 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer.

As a fit, non-smoker in his thirties, this was an unthinkable possibility that became his reality.

The book is a heart-wrenching and inspiring account of his journey, offering sincere insights into what it means to live a meaningful life.

The transition from doctor to patient is one that never comes easily for any medical professional, but this is rarely brought into such sharp focus as when Kalanithi has to check into the hospital he normally works at.

Throughout the book, Kalanithi reflects on his life and career, writing about the impact his diagnosis has had on his understanding of mortality and the nature of life.

It’s a profoundly moving book, that acts to reflect the nature of illness and suffering, as well as what impact this has on a patient’s world and the relationships surrounding them.

Kalanithi’s unique perspective as both a physician and a patient shines a light on the complexities of navigating the medical system and the truly human experience of illness.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Through the incredibly personal experience of his mother passing away, Gawande, a surgeon based in the US, explores the realities of modern healthcare and the impact it has on the elderly population, their families, and the medical professionals who care for them.

By illustrating points with his own experiences in surgery, Gawande highlights the ways in which the medical profession has failed in providing adequate care to the ageing population of the modern world.

He exposes the inadequacies of the traditional medical model, which focuses on cures and prolonging life at all costs, arguing that it’s time to rethink the way we approach end-of-life care and focus more on quality, rather than quantity, of life.

One of the key themes of the book is the importance of considering what matters most to individuals as they face the end of their lives.

Gawande argues that the medical profession should focus on helping individuals achieve these goals and priorities, rather than just focusing on measurable observations, such as a patient’s heart rate.

Having seen and treated patients dying in hospital, being woken up every 2 hours to have their blood pressure taken, I couldn’t agree more.

By reading this book, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the importance of considering what matters most in the end and even how you can better prepare for your own mortality

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

You may have already read this final book, but I thought it would be the perfect finish to this list of must-reads for medicine applicants.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I read it before my application as it only just came out as I went to university, but I definitely would if I had my time again!

The book is essentially a comprehensive overview of human history and the evolution of our species.

It delves into the various stages of human development, from the emergence of Homo sapiens to the present day, and explores many of the profound transformations that have shaped our society and our understanding of the world.

The reason I’ve included it on this list is simply because it offers a far wider perspective of humanity than any other book on this list.

Doctors are dedicated to treating disease and relieving the suffering of other humans, so it only seems fitting that we understand how the people we see in front of us fit into the wider story of humanity.

Although it may seem like relatively dry subject matter, you’ll love ‘Sapiens’ if you’re interested in understanding the history and evolution of our species and want to challenge your own preconceived beliefs and assumptions about the modern world.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the top, there’s no pressure to immediately run out to buy and read all the books on this list.

However, if you know you want to apply to medicine, or already have an application underway, choosing a couple of these titles that you think seem most interesting very well might give your application a little something extra.

Whether that be a throwaway line in your personal statement or being able to backup something you said at interview with a source and real examples, you never know when something you read here might come in handy.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.