At this point, most medical students either know someone obsessed with podcasts, or are obsessed with the medium themselves. With shows on everything from broader pop culture to reading novels as spiritual texts, the podcasting boom allows anyone — including medical students — to engage their most niche interests on their own schedule. Given, however, the diversity and sheer volume of podcasts out there, it is be easy to become overwhelmed or miss a quality show or episode. Below are eight episodes, ranging from traditional interviews to creative nonfiction, that even the busiest medical student should take a break to listen to. By drawing on disciplines as varied as history, etymology, biology and public health, they trace some of medicine’s greatest triumphs, darkest moments and most pressing problems. This list is by no means comprehensive, but the podcasts included are an excellent primer to the potential of podcasting and the humanity that forms medicine’s beating heart.
“Playing God” by Radiolab
For casual and die-hard podcasters alike, Radiolab was a gateway to podcasting — one of the first shows to reveal the medium’s power to amaze and devastate. This episode sees the podcasting heavyweights pairing up with New York Times doctor-turned-reporter Sherri Fink to examine the ethically muddy world of emergency triage. The episode, which begins with a brutal account of what transpired in one New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is expansive in its scope. It moves from a public forum in Maryland dedicated to building triage policy and protocol to the questions of citizenship and nationality that prevented one Haitian impacted by the 2010 earthquake from receiving all the medical care that would have saved him. The editing is impeccable — the firsthand accounts weave in and out of the hosts’ own narration and stand against a backdrop of subtle yet powerful sound effects in a masterclass on the power of podcasting. It is not an easy listen, and it forces its audience to interrogate both their private philosophies and public policy.
“Echoes” by Lore
Those familiar with Lore, Aaron Mahnke’s vehicle for creepy and disturbing histories, might be surprised to find it on a list of medical podcasts. Though Mahnke draws upon archival research and eyewitness testimony, his narratives walk a fine line between embracing the supernatural and understanding the deep, dark complexity of the human mind. In “Echoes,” however, Mahnke casts the fantastic aside to tell the story of the American asylum and one of its most menacing procedures: the icepick lobotomy. What ensues is a half hour not meant for the easily disturbed. Though difficult, and at times graphic, Mahnke lays out a history (and some of the consequences) of one of the most shameful failures in Western medicine: the lack of compassionate and appropriate care given to the mentally ill. It is a failure that needs to be confronted, time and time again, as we strive to do better as researchers and caregivers.
“The Cathedral” by ReplyAll
Though ReplyAll is ostensibly about the Internet, its best moments have come from the human stories it culls from the white noise of message boards, meme trends and the ever-changing world of video games. The latter informs one of its finest hours, “The Cathedral.” The episode follows a family’s unconventional way of working through and finding meaning in their infant’s diagnosis with cancer: by creating a video game based upon their experiences. As they walk with and care for their ailing child, they struggle to capture the disorientation that accompanies terminal disease – constructing and reconstructing scenes and levels to do justice to some of modern medicine’s most senseless, devastating and deeply personal moments. At its core, it is a reminder of the humanity behind each diagnosis, the families torn apart by illness and the privilege physicians have to help them piece life back together in their most challenging times.
“I’d Rather Have a Living Son Than a Dead Daughter” by Only Human
At long last, the health disparities and clinical issues facing transgender patients is having its moment in public discourse; the NIH recently classified “Gender and Sexual Minorities” as a health disparity population, medical schools are incorporating cultural competency in transgender health into their curricula and national medical boards are openly opposing discriminatory laws such as North Carolina’s HB2. Amidst this tense and rapidly changing political and social landscape, it can be difficult for well-meaning individuals to find accessible, empathetic sources to educate themselves on the social and psychological factors that shape the transgender experience. This episode, from WNYC’s Only Human, aims to fill gaps in listeners’ knowledge.
With Duke University’s Center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care as its locus, the episode spins outward to profile a doctor providing hormone therapy to adolescents, some of the patients under her care and the families adjusting to life with a transgender child. Each anecdote is an entry point to different facets of what it means to be transgender, including dysphoria, discrimination, social stigma, the role of familial acceptance and the difficulties in accessing competent medical care. The episode confronts difficult truths about what it is like to be transgender in a time of increasing, and occasionally threatening, visibility. Even well-versed students can take something away from this worthwhile listen.
“Eponyms II – Name That Disease” by The Allusionist
At first glance, The Allusionist feels like a parody of an English major’s favorite podcast. With a British host and penchant for random bursts of etymology, the show is clearly designed for the linguistically inclined. In “Eponyms II,” however, The Allusionist applies its vivacious passion for language to the murky, muddled world of medical jargon. This episode takes a seemingly esoteric topic — the debate over how to name diseases — and breathes it to life through the perspectives of both patients and medical students. As students well-versed in the prefixes, suffixes, and technical terminology of medical diagnoses, it can be easy to forget how scary the most benign diagnoses can sound. At the same time, eponymous diseases, while frustrating to memorize, can soften the gravity of a diagnosis. This episode of The Allusionist parses the space between seemingly inaccessible medical jargon and what patients experience when processing opaque-sounding diagnoses.
“The Primitive Streak” by Radiolab
For the budding medical student, embryology can be a difficult, traumatizing time — one of the rites of passage we must push through on our way to understanding physiology and pathology. The barrage of technical terms and developmental events can be overwhelming. “The Primitive Streak” follows Radiolab producer Molly Webster as she observes a human embryo develop in vitro. Her wonder at watching a clump of cells develop through their first 12 days of division is a welcome reminder of the wonder that sits just beneath the surface of our sterile, clinical lectures. She reminds us just how magical life is, as we study the various ways to encourage and preserve it.
“Atul Gawande on surgery, writing, Obamacare and indie music” from The Ezra Klein Show
Ezra Klein’s podcast has been host to some formidable guests – Hillary Clinton, Cory Booker, Malcolm Gladwell, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are just a few of the thinkers, movers and shakers that he’s interviewed. However, his 90-minute conversation with surgeon/writer/researcher Atul Gawande, one of the most prominent physician-writers working today, ranks among his finest. In this sprawling conversation, Gawande and Klein discuss everything from Obamacare (this episode was released well before the 2016 presidential election) to parenting to writing. For medical students and physicians hoping to live as well-rounded a life as Gawande has managed, there is plenty to learn.