How Not to be a Doctor

How Not to be a Doctor
And Other Essays
John Launer
Price: £
  • Hardback
14 Jun 2018
  • Popular Science
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The essential book on how not to be a doctor - and how to be a better one.

Doctor and medical columnist John Launer has written on the practice and teaching of medicine for many years. In this erudite collection containing over fifty of his essays he sets out an argument that being a doctor — a real doctor — means drawing on every aspect of yourself and your experiences no matter how remote from the medical task at hand.

Originating from his popular medical columns, Launer’s writing takes in the breadth of medical practice: from the title essay How Not to Be a Doctor, an ironic piece on the essential skills they don’t teach you in medical school and why sometimes not listening is just as important as gathering the facts; to Launer leaping to the rescue of a ten-yearold boy with a burst appendix on the overnight train to Cairo; to his poignant account of being a patient himself as he received treatment for a life-threatening illness.

With a foreword by doctor and comedian Phil Hammond, How Not to be a Doctor is a charming, funny and advice-filled look from a lifetime in medicine, taking in the absurd and the profound. Launer’s reflections combine candid humour and the human touch to inform and entertain readers on both ends of the stethoscope.


'An all-round excellent book, which would appeal to a wide range of healthcare professionals and students… a light-hearted way of looking at serious subjects' BMA Panel of Judges, 2008

'Witty and wise. Shows how important it is that doctors are allowed to be human' Kit Wharton, author of Emergency Admissions: Memoirs of an Ambulance Driver

‘This collection of essays gets to the heart and soul of current medical practice. It is written by a doctor, but incorporates life experience and wisdom, making it an easy, thought provoking read. A worthwhile resource for anyone currently in medical practice, or contemplating a career as a doctor’ Professor Jane Dacre, President of the Royal College of Physicians

'I raced through this book, laughing, nodding, highlighting and then read some favourite bits again.  Every chapter has a gem of wisdom as well as being so very elegantly written and entertaining. I shall be recommending it to my fellow coaches as virtually all of it applies to us as much as to clinicians: do we understand the exquisite importance of choosing the right words for our questions? Do we always hear what matters most for this client right now? Do we always act on the principle that kindness is every bit as important as our technical know-how? Maybe not – and we need to be reminded' Jenny Rogers, Co-Author of Coaching for Health

'How not to be a doctor' is seriously funny, wickedly irreverent collection of stories. It has wise advice to those that want to be better doctors, whether young or old. Self-deprecation runs deep, as in the episode where Launer, on a sailboat in the Nile, tells how his diagnosis of acute appendicitis was worryingly dismissed because he was wearing a very wrong kind of trousers. Indignation is at full throttle as he compares the current humiliation of patients by the persistent ritual of the hospital ward round to the incredible rule, not so many decades ago, when parents were denied visits to their hospitalized children. Deep understanding shines through: if only every medical student could hear his advice: 'we succeed by letting go of the habit of trying to fix everything’ Professor Glyn Elwyn, Director of the Patient Engagement Program at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy, Dartmouth College, USA

'Thought-provoking and wise… Launer writes with eloquent passion, gentle humour and authority about the complexities of what is involved in becoming a good doctor… not only should it be essential reading for every medical student, but qualified doctors should be required to re-read it every year in order to reflect on the wisdom, caring and respect for patients which are contained within it' Nudge Books

'Humorous, poignant, provocative, and educational . . . the author's opinions and anecdotes offer fresh takes on the ever changing field of medicine and how small changes in patient care have the potential to inspire radical improvements in the industry at large' Kirkus

‘John reminds us that we as doctors need to share our vulnerabilities and be willing to explore new horizons, not just in science but about the heart and soul of what it means to be human as we journey with our patients’ Dr. Katrina Anderson, Australian National University

'John Launer’s essays offer varied and fascinating perspectives on the practice of medicine. His book has the great virtue of being easy to read and his insights bring fresh understanding even to those with a deep knowledge of the subject' Professor Chris Ham, Chief Executive of the King's Fund

‘Insightful, witty and above all, humane. My own practice as a doctor, and a teacher of doctors, has been enriched by reflecting on these stories’ Professor Tim Usherwood, University of Sydney

‘Few write about practising medicine, meeting illness and experiencing vulnerability with more eloquence or openness than John Launer. This collection is warm, wise, generous, thoughtful and thought-provoking. The range of essays is engaging and all are imbued with a moving humanity which offers inspiration and reassurance in equal measure. The reflections and questions posed in these essays are infused with curiosity, rigour and compassion. It is a book to which I will return often and press upon others’ Professor Deborah Bowman, MBE, Professor of Ethics and Law and BBC Radio Presenter

‘John Launer uses his voracious curiosity to sift wisdom from the ordinary events of a doctor’s life. Bursting with wonder and wisdom, this seductively readable book imparts courage and joy in equal measure’ Iona Heath, CBE, former President of the Royal College of General Practitioners

‘What fun to read! Lively, entertaining, thoughtful. At times one simply laughs in agreement, at other times one wants to remonstrate in disbelief. But always with a smile, and sometimes without even intending to, a huge guffaw releases itself as if the air needed to understand how amusing a meta-comment on medicine could be. The chapters on hospitals inadequate signage and the bureaucratic argot of the healthcare system are memorable. Altogether delightful!’ Arthur Kleinman, Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Social Medicine, Harvard University, author of The Illness Narratives

‘John Launer gives full voice to his own story-telling skills in this collection of short articles. He draws widely, from personal experience to imagined worlds, from evolutionary psychology to literary criticism, but he never strays far from the depth of understanding that can be gained from an interaction between patient and doctor, or learner and guide’ Professor Ronald MacVicar, Postgraduate Dean, NHS Education for Scotland

‘With stories about hope, death, love, despair, listening, writing, and evolution, and veering from the trivial to the profound, this book encourages us to consider what it means to be human; and in doing so, how we might become better humans. A must read for every doctor, for anyone who is considering becoming a doctor, or for those who want to understand how medicine really works’ Professor Deborah Gill  FRCGP  EdD  PFHEA, Director, UCL Medical School

‘The GP sitting in their consulting room never really knows what the next patient will bring. Launer, in his masterful collection of essays, recreates this element of surprise for the reader, illuminating the richness of the medical encounter. A gem, for doctors and patients, alike’ Dr Caroline Elton, author of Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors

‘The nature and meaning of reflective practice by doctors is currently being hotly debated. John Launer’s entertaining read is also a timely and salutary reminder of the value of reflection’ Neena Modi, Professor of Neonatal Medicine, Imperial College London

‘Bursting with humor and humanity, John Launer's How Not To Be A Doctor is a witty and engaging look at the challenges facing patients and doctors. I found myself nodding along with every page’ Matt McCarthy, author of The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

‘Using his characteristic blend of deep insight, rare candour and tongue-in-cheek humour, Dr. Launer explores a wide range of topics from the commonplace (why doctors are not good listeners); to the taboo (how doctors deal with patients they find sexually attractive); and to the frankly absurd (what cheddar cheese and healthcare have in common)… required reading for anyone interested in the healing arts’ Frank Vertosick, author of When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery

‘Weaving professional and personal stories with history and theory, Launer gives us a full picture of what it means – and how it feels – to be a doctor today. Both a sober admonishment and joyful celebration of the medical profession, providing depth and colour… Fascinating’ Kevin Hazzard, author of A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back

‘A great book for anyone who wants an insight into the mind of a Doctor. It really shows what goes on behind the white coat (not that we wear them now) and stethoscope… how we think and why we think the way we do’ Dr Nick Edwards, author of In Stitches: The Highs and Lows of Life as an A&E Doctor

‘Truly a precious prescription’ Booklist

John Launer

About John Launer

John Launer is an honorary lifetime consultant at the Tavistock Clinic in London, the leading training institute in the UK for psychological treatment. He is also an Associate Dean for postgraduate medical education at the University of London.  A doctor and family therapist, he is also a renowned medical columnist and educator both nationally and internationally. Find out more:

Titles by John Launer
Other titles by John Launer