Several books published in the last year or so stand out for their enlightening, entertaining and often personal stories on the health and science front.
Here are five health books you might consider cracking open for yourself or giving to a loved one:
• There's something for nearly every kind of reader in this story that began when a poor black woman sought treatment for cervical cancer in 1951 and a doctor in Baltimore took a tissue sample without her consent. After she died, scientists were able to use her cell line to develop a raft of new therapies including the polio vaccine, and the profitable business of human biological materials was born. But Lacks' descendants were unable to afford health insurance, and they suffered two decades before learning the truth about her legacy. Rebecca Skloot's patience in winning the family's trust pays off and she lets Lacks' daughter Deborah emerge as a poignant protagonist, weaving a moving family portrait into a cautionary tale about health care injustice.
• A veteran journalist goes on a self-described "medical pilgrimage" from India to Germany to compare health systems through the prism of his aching shoulder. T. R. Reid collects medical advice from doctors and other practitioners aiming to help him past the pain of an old injury. But he's just as interested in why health systems evolved as they did and why the U.S. outspends them all while leaving 50 million people uninsured and failing to get better health results for its money. With humor and lucidity, Reid reminds readers that no health system is perfect. But he trains his eye on Switzerland and Taiwan as examples of free-market democracies that found the political will to cover nearly everyone.
• A former public relations executive for health insurance companies lays bare the tricks of the trade that he says insurers have used over the years to mislead reporters and scare and confuse Americans into keeping the dysfunctional system they have. Wendell Potter exposes the firms' lavish executive pay, use of front groups and tactics for weaseling out of insuring those who need coverage most, but he also condemns the for-profit model that sets up the need for these companies to compete on who can shed the most risk in the first place. He also looks at the major self-serving public relations campaigns that trade groups like the American Medical Association have used to derail previous attempts to make health care more equitable. Potter reveals the stories of patient desperation that caused him to abandon his 20-year career and explains why he fears that spin will win.
• In a comprehensive "biography" of cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee introduces a vast cast of characters and describes their early trials and errors that led to advances in cancer treatment. The author wants to know how scientists' shifting understanding and treatment of this complex disease can be used to predict its future, and his descriptions of patients' cases unfold with humane elegance. He uses the tale of the ancient Persian queen Atossa, who asked a slave to cut off her cancer-ridden breast, to orient readers on a treatment timeline that extends to the present.
• Even the most highly skilled and trained among us is prone to forgetting crucial steps or neglecting to ask critical questions when the pressure is on. So says Atul Gawande, a New Yorker writer and surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, who takes readers on a tour of how different professions and skilled trades manage the growing complexity of their tasks. He draws parallels to how U.S. health care teams can improve their performance and reduce deadly medical errors with the use of checklists. With both wit and gravitas, Gawande lends new urgency to an old idea.