The medical field deals with danger and mystery almost every day. What poison killed the victim? How do you cure such an advanced ailment? What is this new virus spreading across the globe?
Pair those situations with the heavy responsibility of guarding a patient’s life and you have the perfect setting for a thriller. And it works! From TV series to books, medical thrillers are one of the most popular genres in the media.
Medical thrillers are stories that center on medical environments and involve medically-trained characters. These thrillers portray how these characters deal with the problems and difficulties that often surface in surgery, virology, immunology, and other medical fields.
Because of this, a medical thriller’s narrative often involves heavy scientific knowledge that may or may not be restricted to medical science.
It often goes at length to explain the purpose, benefits, and risks of a medical procedure or piece of equipment. With such highly specific information, it’s not uncommon for writers of this genre to have medical backgrounds or at least consult relevant experts.
Medical thrillers often go for narratives where medicine has either gone terribly wrong, or is struggling to keep up with horrific scenarios—like diseases becoming epidemics, doctors going rogue, and medical companies practicing horrible ethics.
In this way, the genre also gets to explore the people within the medical field—like how they cope with being unable to save people from dying, make necessary decisions for their patients, and compartmentalize their personal and professional lives.
Popular Medical Thriller Books
As a popular genre, there are thousands of medical thrillers available for you to read. Here are some of the most popular ones to date.
1. Coma by Robin Cook
Susan Wheeler is an attractive, up-and-coming medical student working at Boston Memorial Hospital. During her training, it comes to her attention that Boston Memorial has an oddly high amount of patients going into a coma after being treated.
Deciding to investigate, she discovers that the oxygen line to Operating Room 8 has been tampered with, leading to possible brain death. But what she finds further on is far more horrifying—a large-scale black market operation for human organs taken from the very people the hospital promised to help.
2. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell
For Kay Scarpetta, the goal isn’t to save those in her care. Instead, as a medical examiner, she focuses on determining how they died so she can save whoever’s next.
And right now, the Richmond Police Department is relying on her to find clues for a string of unsolved murders. But her investigation puts her in the killer’s sights. Will she be able to determine who it is before she becomes the next victim?
3. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Alicia Berenson’s picture-perfect life comes to an end when she kills her husband and never speaks again. Her refusal to talk, even to defend herself, turns the case into a high-profile drama that everyone seems to watch.
Admitted into a secure psychiatric unit, Alicia is placed in the care of Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist with a keen interest in her side of the story. But as he digs deeper into her psyche, it becomes clear that his agenda may be more personal than he lets on.
4. Harvest by Tess Gerritsen
A car crash victim’s heart is found to be the perfect match for Boston Bayside Hospital’s wealthy private patient, Nina Voss. However, Dr. Abby DiMatteo makes sure it’s transplanted to a dying 17-year-old instead—a move that may have just ended her career.
But then a new heart is suddenly found and given to Nina. When Abby realizes it didn’t come from the proper channels, she plunges headfirst into a chain of deceptions involving organs and the Russian mob.
5. The Cobra Event by Richard Preston
Seventeen-year-old Kate Moran wakes up feeling sick. Hours later, she’s convulsing, blood is rushing out her nose, and she can’t stop biting herself. As similar cases appear everywhere, the CDC sends in Dr. Alice Austen, a forensic pathologist, to investigate.
When she finds evidence that what she’s investigating may be manmade, she’s faced with the possible collapse of the United States. It’s a race to find the cure—and the perpetrators—before it’s too late.
6. The Line Between by Tosca Lee
Wynter Roth has just escaped a doomsday cult when she is immediately confronted by what she’s been fearing her whole life—the apocalypse. A strange disease frozen in the Alaskan permafrost has gone active, causing madness in its victims.
When her sister shows up with samples that may be the key to everyone’s survival, Wynter knows what to do. As the nation descends into chaos, she must take the samples to a lab in Colorado, in the hopes of saving a world she’s always been taught was evil.
7. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
A space probe returns to Earth and unleashes an extraterrestrial organism that decimates a whole town. A team of scientists is sent in to investigate and contain the threat.
But the microbe, code-named Andromeda, is unlike any terrestrial organism on earth, rapidly evolving to change its biological properties. When it escapes containment, the team must deal with an imminent nuclear explosion that may just turn Andromeda into its deadliest form.
8. Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Dr. Greta Helsing is a doctor specializing in the inhuman. She fashions new bones for mummies, cures sore throats for banshees, and supplies blood to vampires in need. Despite all that, her life is a relatively quiet one.
That’s until a sect of murderous monks begin killing humans and undead alike. As one who lives on both worlds, only Greta has the necessary skills and insights to bring back peace to the community.
What Makes a Medical Thriller?
Medical thrillers are identified by their use and comprehension of medical science and beyond. Many writers of this genre, such as Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen, are former medical practitioners. This equips them with the necessary inside view on medicine that makes their novels realistic.
This genre speculates on the limitations, possibilities, and dangers of the medical field—how far is too far in medicine, the emergence of new threats such as viruses and bioterrorism, and how medical science is used to enhance society. In this, it serves as a reminder of the delicate balance that medicine must maintain.
And just like other thrillers, this subgenre finds ways to uncover the darkness in the human spirit—like how villainy festers like a wound in some people, and that, no matter how medicine was created for the betterment of society, there are doctors that kill their patients, corporations that unfairly raise their prices, and medicine that’s used for illegal activities.