Practising Medicine

Medicine is the compassionate act of caring while using appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes. At the heart of this is the relationship between doctor and patient. (see resources for doctor & patient on a separate page)

The practice of medicine is often described as an art.

The resources on this page focus on what it looks and feels like to be a doctor.

I’ve also included some resources that I think are helpful in exploring the essential qualities of a doctor, making the assumption that:

  • Patients and doctors are both human. Both need to show and be shown compassion.
  • Medical knowledge is important, but it needs to be based on good science, kept up to date, and used in the context of the patient’s life.
  • Doctors need to understand how they and their patients make decisions and what influences this process.
  • Medicine is bigger than the individual doctor-patient relationship. Doctors need to be aware of the role community and society especially inequality plays in patients’ health and well-being.


Many clinicians write stories about their medical work. Some are shared, published and made into films or TV dramas and because their stories are entertaining and informative they appeal to a large audience. Some stories highlight the challenges doctors face in their day-to-day work while others provide humorous anecdotes: eventually all form part of the historical record of medical care.

Why do you think that doctors write about their experiences of work? Have you ever written a story or poem about being a doctor?

What stories have you read or watched that feature a doctor at work.? Can you relate to the author or character’s perspective?  Have they helped you in your own medical career?

These suggestions are mainly written from the doctor’s perspective, resources from the patient’s perspective are on the next page.

For further inspiration look at The Doctors Bookshelf, a great blog about books for doctors, mostly non-fiction but some great suggestions. 

Contemporary Stories

  • Atul Gawande – Has written several books all are good reads especially this one –  Being Mortal, Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End
  • Adam Kay – This is Going to Hurt 
  • Henry Marsh Has written several interesting books including Do No Harm 
  • Rachel Clarke including Your Life in My Hands and Dear Life
  • Stephen Westerby Fragile Lives
  • Richard Shepherd Unnatural Causes
  • Roopa Rarooki Everything is True A junior doctor’s story of life, death and grief in a pandemic.

Stories about working in General Practice

Some lives, A GP’s East End David Widgery

The Citadel A J Cronin *see review below, good for discussion about the interface between medicine and business.

A Fortunate Man The Story of a Country Doctor John Berger

A Fortunate Woman, A Country Doctor’s Story Polly Moorland

The Doctor’s Dilemma (a play) George Bernard Shaw Explores the moral dilemmas created by limited medical resources and the conflicts between private medicine as a business and a vocation.

Historical Stories

A Country Doctor’s Notebook Bulgakov

The House of God Samuel Shem (1978) (pages 170-171 recommended)

Cancer Ward Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Stories From Other Countries

In the Bone Setters Waiting Room Aarathi Prasad (Travels through Indian medicine)

Additional reading suggestions (most are reviewed below)

Reviews of some of the book suggestions

The Citadel A J Cronin 1937 Also dramatised in film and for Radio 4.

The Citadel follows the life of Dr Manson who as a newly qualified doctor starts his working life in a small Welsh mining town. Manson’s medical training has not prepared him to cope with the role of GP, anaesthetist, surgeon, obstetrician, and public health doctor working in an isolated rural community. Manson is very critical of the system in which he is required to work, the poor collaboration between colleagues and the lack of incentive for doctors to keep up to date.

Of his colleagues Manson writes, ‘as it was, they had no unity no sense of cooperation and little friendliness amongst themselves. They were simply set up, one against the other, in the ordinary competitive way existing in General Practice all over the country, each trying to secure as many patients for himself as he could. Downright suspicion and bad feeling were often the result.’

Manson worked for a voluntary contribution medical association which is based on the Tredegar Medical Aid Society and which in due course became the inspiration for the National Health Service as established under Aneurin Bevan.

Cronin was a doctor and much of this story is drawn from his own experiences. He eloquently explores the ethical challenges and moral dilemmas faced by Manson. Much of his commentary is currently topical and relevant to practising medicine in the 21st century.

Also Human The Inner Lives of Doctors Caroline Elton 2018

Dr Caroline Elton is a psychologist, who for over 20 years has listened to doctors talk about the impact their work has had on their lives. She uses her knowledge to examine the experience of working as a doctor in 21st-century medicine.

The Daily Mail reviewed Elton’s book and said, ‘Doctors are people, too. They possess the same virtues, faults, fears and desires as the rest of us but it’s easy for patients to forget this obvious truth, Caroline Elton’s revelatory book is a welcome reminder of this.

Adventures in Human Being Gavin Francis 2015 Published by Profile Books

Francis’s book is set out in chapters relating to each part of the body. He combines historical facts, literary references, medical knowledge and personal anecdote to bring to life the disease processes and illnesses that affect the health of patients. In his introduction, Francis writes, ‘the practice of medicine is not just a journey through the parts of the body and the stories of others, but an exploration of life possibilities an adventure in human being.’

The book enables the reader to take a step back and view each part of the body as a component of the larger whole. The book has several historically interesting black-and-white pictures.

Death of Ivan Ilych Leo Tolstoy 1886 Published in translation in the UK by Penguin

This is one of Tolstoy’s most acclaimed short stories, and a favourite of mine to use in teaching. The story describes the decline of Ivan Ilych’s health and eventual death.  Ilych is a successful lawyer who is used to being in control of his destiny, in good health and wealth. As his health deteriorates, he becomes frustrated with the medical profession as they argue about what it is wrong with him, each trying to give his illness a name but none focusing on his main question about his prognosis.

He says, it is not ‘a question of appendix or kidney but of life and….. death’.

The medical profession and his family fail at every opportunity to offer him care and compassion. Ilych describes visiting a celebrated doctor, ‘the whole procedure followed the lines he expected it would; everything was as it always is. There was the usual period in the waiting room, and the important manner assumed by the doctor-he was familiar with the air of professional dignity: he adopted it himself in court – and the sounding and listening and questions that called for answers that were foregone conclusions and obviously unnecessary, and the weighty look which implied, you just leave it all to us and we’ll arrange matters-we know all about it and can see what to do exactly the same way we would do for any other man. The entire procedure was just the same as in the Law Courts. The airs he put on in court for the benefit of the prisoner at the bar the doctor now put on for him.’

‘Without a single soul to understand for care for him’ Tolstoy’s description of the helplessness Ilych feels is masterful. Ilych recognises he is dying and begins to reflect on his life and starts to regret many of the choices he made. Without someone to talk to he is tortured not only by his physical pain, but by his mental anguish. The only character in the story who is able to offer understanding and compassion is Gerassim, the young peasant who waits on his table.  Only when Ilyich made peace with himself is he able to die.

This story covers important issues of the illness experience, death, dying and palliative care. It should help doctors understand the overriding importance of compassionate care.

Paradox of Progress James Willis 1995

Although this was written in the 1990s when GPs still wrote in Lloyd George paper records and did their own on-call this book still has a lot to offer any doctor. It describes the importance of the role of both the specialist and the generalist. The paradox Willis describes is that technological change and progress are not always associated with improved health care. Download this book for free on the author’s website.

Bad Pharma  Ben Goldacre 2012

Ben Goldacre is a doctor, science writer and  a Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, part of the University of Oxford

His work unpicks the evidence behind claims from journalists, drug companies, politicians and quacks and was published by the Guardian under his hugely successful column  ‘Bad Science’. This work led to the publication of his first book ‘Bad Science’. The evidence and debate in his second book, Bad Pharma provided the impetus for Parliament to review the role of drug companies in research.

The text on the back of Goldacre’s book says, ‘Warning; the pharmaceutical industry has serious side-effects. Doctors and patients need good scientific evidence to make informed decisions. But companies bury unflattering data, while regulators stand by, and doctors are misled by needlessly flawed research. Patients are harmed as a result.’ Goldacre’s book shows that the problems he has identified can be fixed.

You can read more about his work on his website

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman 2011

Kahneman is an Israeli American psychologist who is renowned for his work on the psychology of decision-making and judgement. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in behavioural economics in 2002. His work challenges the assumption that humans are generally rational and their thinking logical.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is to be commended for both its broad-reaching scope and the simplicity of language used to describe complex psychological models. The book discusses the way in which humans make decisions and how the decision-making process is prone to influence by internal and external factors such as anchoring, priming, hindsight bias and loss aversion. Kahneman’s description of type one and type two is a concept that every doctor should be aware of. The book also contains many useful thought experiments which help the reader understand how behavioural economics can be applied to our everyday lives.

Expert by Roger Kneebone 2020

A very good review in the Guardian

Can Medicine Be Cured by Seamus Mahony 2019

If you subscribe to the Times there is a good review by Phil Hammond 

How not to be a doctor by John Launer 2019

A collection of fifty of John Launer’s essays that have been featured in his medical columns.

As it says in his introduction, they set out an argument that being a doctor- a real doctor- should mean being able to draw on every aspect of yourself, your interests and your experiences, however remote these may seem from the medical task of the moment.

The book reinforces how much we learn from stories.

Film, TV and drama

Resources evolving

This is a useful article – Mad scientists, compassionate healers, and greedy egotists: the portrayal of physicians in the movies.

Doc Martin ITV Drama

Wit 1999 (A recommended scene is where the surgeon informs the main character of her diagnosis)

Patch Adams 1998

The Doctor 1991 (A recommended scene where the surgeon invites his students to undergo the investigations they order for their patients)

Carry on Doctor 1970’s TV drama with some good clips showing how ‘not to be a caring doctor’!

There are so many to choose from let me know what works well for you in teaching?


My favourite poetry book about practising medicine is this one by Glenn Colquhoun. It’s a great resource for teaching. The poem reproduced below usually provokes a good discussion and may persuade you to buy his book.

Did you know that the poetry anthology Tools of the Trade: Poems for new doctors (Scottish Poetry Library) has been given to all graduating doctors in Scotland since 2014?

There are also some great poetry collections on the NHS page of this website. 


BMJ cover

The front cover of this BMJ asks a prime question. The cover could be used to prompt discussion as could these pictures of doctors painted by famous artists.

Portrait of Dr Gachet Van Gogh 1890 Image in Public Domain

Look at The Healer by Magritte through your web browser. There are several versions.

What other images of doctors in paintings/sculpture and photography interest you, and why?

What sort of doctor does your patient see when they look at you? How do you want to appear? Take a moment to look at a photo of you at work, or draw a picture of yourself as you would like to be seen.

Move on to the next collection of resources to see Luke Fildes’s The Doctor, considered the most famous painting of a doctor. 

This painting by Bosch is a good resource for discussing the ethical aspects of practising medicine. 

What is the doctor doing?

In the 15th Century it was not uncommon for individuals suffering from psychosis to have their skull trephined to allow the evil spirit to leave the body. The practice was barbaric and usually resulted in the patient’s death. Bosch painted this picture as an allegory. He is making fun of the doctor by depicting him wearing a funnel, implying that it is the doctor and not the patient who is mad and that the doctor is only motivated by money, hence the large purse on his waist cord. 

The Extraction of the Stone of Madness BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado Reproduced under educational license

Page created 2019 updated January 2022