Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Book of the Month: Being Mortal (Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End) by Atul Gawande (Reviewed by Kirsten Walthall @K_Walthall)

About the author

Atul Gawande is a general and endocrine surgeon based at the the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, USA. Gawande is also a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and the author of four best-selling books. His latest work, published in late 2014, is titled “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End”.

Who should read this book?

Everyone – healthcare providers, patients and the lay public. Although several issues are highlighted through a case series of patients with medical problems, the book does not focus on the ins and outs of medical matters, such as the specifics of treatments. Gawande’s easy style of writing makes this book accessible to all. 

In summary

This book explores the concept of mortality and the impact that modern day medicine has had on it.
Using a series of cases, Gawande discusses the experiences of several people as they grow old, some with life-limiting diseases and others who simply become frail. He looks at the struggle to retain independence and autonomy; how care systems often try to provide support in a regimented way. Gawande discusses the concept of  “assisted living”, which helps people to continue to live the lives that they have lived. Furthermore, Gawande explores the belief of healthcare professionals that they have failed when a patient dies. Many find it difficult to accept that medicine cannot fix everything, and therefore may give poor information to their patients about what they realistically expect medical management to accomplish. Gawande discusses the importance of having those hard conversations with patients to find out what matters most to each individual so that therapy and care can be tailored to them. He argues that what we should be striving for is maintaining quality of life until death, rather than just prolonging life itself.

What’s good about this book?

Gawande uses #whatmattersmost on Twitter

The use of case studies and personal experiences to explore the issues involved in growing old and dying engage the reader. Gawande’s writing style makes “Being Mortal” very easy to read despite the potentially heavy subject matter. Mortality was not well covered in my undergraduate training – indeed it was barely touched upon – and I suspect that this is the same across the board in undergraduate medical education. This impression is supported by a study by Bowden et al (2013) who found that Foundation Year doctors expressed a lack of readiness to deliver end of life support and care.  “Being Mortal” really makes the reader think about the latter stages of life and the importance of preserving what matters most to each individual. It gives the reader an understanding of mortality that, for the healthcare professional, will benefit her patients and, for the individual, will benefit her, her relatives and her friends.

What’s bad about this book?

This is not a quick read book. It is very thought-provoking and encourages discussion - you will need time to read, absorb and think about its contents.

Final thoughts

This is by far the most inspirational and thought provoking book I have read – a must-read for anyone involved in patient care.


Bowden, J., Dempsey, K., Boyd. K., Fallon. M. and Murray. S.A. (2013) Are newly qualified doctors prepared to provide supportive and end-of-life care? A survey of Foundation Year 1 doctors and consultants, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 43 pp.24-28 [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 02 March 2015)

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