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Book review: 34 Patients: What Becoming a Doctor Taught Me About Health, Hope and Humanity

Hannah Milton is a GP, mum, and a runner.

Tom Templeton was a journalist before he retrained as a doctor at age 30, going on to specialise as a GP. This book is about 34 patients who had a particular impact on him, laid out in four sections: Childhood, Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age. The 34 chapters stand alone and so it is easy to dip into the book.

The stories flick back and forth between his early hospital jobs and his GP job now (including some pandemic experiences). Each patient story explores the complex interplay between the social, psychological, and physical factors that contribute to the medical presentation. Were the 34 patients chosen to represent a typical day in the life of a GP? I feel as though the book does do justice to the reality of our day job.

“This book is a beautiful representation of what is wonderful, difficult, complex, and rewarding about our job.”

I felt his journalism experience in the beautiful and vivid descriptions throughout the book. At times there was a whimsical feel that let my imagination guess what happened next for each patient. He writes clearly and kindly and I think a non-medical audience would find a great deal of interest in this book too. Templeton shows that lectures and books can only teach a doctor so much, and the humanity and lateral thinking can only be learnt through experience. I think this summarises the real pleasure in the job for me.

At first, I found the individual stories a bit too short and perhaps too familiar. I wasn’t sure if it would be better read by non-medics and maybe there wasn’t going to be anything new for me. But as I read on, I found myself really drawn into the stories. I wanted to stop and close the book to think after each chapter rather than rush on and read the next story, and I was compelled to go back and read the early chapters again! It reminded me that all patients have so much more going on than the 10-minute presentation in front of me.

The book finishes with ‘Endnotes on the diseases’, which succinctly explains more information about the diseases in each chapter. Although this section is clearly for a non-medical audience, there are some interesting facts, reminders, and support group suggestions for GPs.

This book is a beautiful representation of what is wonderful, difficult, complex, and rewarding about our job. It was a lovely mix of medicine and storytelling, and I hope there will be a follow-up book.

Featured book: Tom Templeton, 34 Patients: What Becoming a Doctor Taught Me About Health, Hope and Humanity, Penguin, 2022, PB, 368pp, £9.19, 978-1405944670.

Featured photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash.

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