Medical School

Starting medical school… What to Read

Last week I shared my packing list for student halls, but the list was deliberately missing something. Books! Let’s talk about what to read as a medical student.


Now firstly, let’s address a little bit of a controversial topic – textbooks. There is a bit of an ongoing thing between old school doctors and younger doctors

I DO own textbooks, unlike many of my peers. However, I could count on one hand the number of times I have needed to use them.

If you are thinking about buying medical textbooks I would think about a few things first:

  1. What type of learner are you? Are you going to benefit from just reading information off of a page? If so – you don’t need to own the textbook, you can go to the library! If you think you need to interact with the text on the page such as making noted in the margins, underlining, highlighting etc. and this is the best way that you learn, then consider getting them
  2. Do you need to get them in the first year? Your university has a duty to teach you all of the content required to pass their exams. Universities do not want their students to fail ever, its bad press. You really often don’t need to have an entire textbook worth of information on a topic to have a sufficient understanding. Lectures, seminars, tutorials and the internet will normally provide you with ample content to pass first year exams.
  3. Are you going to fall into the trap of just reading a textbook and calling it ‘Revision’? Learning needs to be active in medical school, there is so much content that unless you have a truly photographic memory (in which case I do hate you) you are going to need to actively force information into that head of yours. Flashcards, writing notes, consolidating, revisiting, teaching peers, studying with others… There are so many active ways of revising, that just sitting in bed reading a textbook is just not enough.
  4. Can you afford them, and if so do you have space for them. Medical textbooks are expensive and they are big. Think about maybe holding off and not getting them until you are out of student accommodation and into a private rental with more space.

I have textbooks because the extended medical degree programme at kings is sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Barbers, who very kindly purchase each of us the relevant textbooks at the start of our first year.

What to read – Books about medicine, healthcare, being a doctor or general reading.

During your application, you very likely read a large number of books about healthcare, medicine and being a doctor. Either you were very interested in learning more about the profession you are going into, you heard that you should talk about them in your personal statement/interview or you had a relative who heard you were applying to medicine so thought it would make a good birthday present.

Whatever the reason was, I’m going to assume you read some, so many of the books on this list may not be new to you. However, I strongly advise you read all of the books on this list at some point before graduating from medical school as they provide very valuable insight into healthcare, medicine, the NHS and global health.

I realise this list is entirely nonfiction. In the last 5-years, I have read very little fiction, not because I don’t like fiction but because I just haven’t prioritised it. When I read fiction I also tend to read books with almost nothing to do with medicine, as a release and escape from the world of a medical student. At least 75% of the fiction books I have enjoyed have been fantasy or sci-fi, and if you want recommendations for those please do ask!

My medical student reading list:

Books I have LOVED – These are all must-read

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay

Probably the book most synonymous with medical non-fiction, this book is a hilarious and heartbreaking story of working as a doctor. A must read for medical students, especially if you have ever thought about being in Obs and Gynae.

The Health Gap – Michael Marmot

An amazing books that highlights in no uncertain terms, the impacts of inequality on our health. Did you know that the average Britain would live an extra 8 years in good health if they had the same opportunities as the richest members of our society?!

Being Mortal – Atul Gawande

All about death, end of life care, living with dignity and preserving autonomy in dying patients, I think this may be the most important book that anyone working with terminally ill patients should read.

When breath becomes air – Paul Kalanithi

A heart wrenching memoir of a doctor, and a fantastic reflection on life and finding purpose even in the darkest of circumstances. I vividly remember finishing this book in an airport waiting room and crying my eyes out. Truly beautiful.

Do No Harm – Henry Marsh

Dr Marsh really opens up the thought processes and feelings of a medical doctor for all to see. Do No Harm explores the humanity of surgeons, the desire to always achieve the best outcome for a patient and the realities of being both a doctor and a patient (or patient’s family member).

Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

This fascinating insight into thought, personality and decision making really helps you to think about the biology and evolution that has allowed you to be sitting there reading the words on the page. It is an exploration into the difference between mind and brain, and uncovers the secrets of possibly the most alien of lifeforms on this planet – the octopus. It also has the coolest book cover ever…

Books still on my reading list (so I can’t comment on how good they are yet!)

I’m always on the lookout for new books to read, so please do let me know! Have a great book suggestion? Then get in touch! Drop me an email through the contact page, reply to my newsletter, or simply DM on social media!

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Connor is a medical student at King’s College London. For the 19/20 academic year he is undertaking an intercalated iBSc in Imaging Sciences, also at King’s.

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