Being bad at math, in the general sense, shouldn’t stop you from becoming a doctor. But as math is the language of science – and explains the observable patterns of the universe – a basic understanding of it is necessary. Especially when seeking to master both physics and chemistry.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Why you don’t need much math to become a doctor
- How much math you need in med school
- What doctors use math for
- How you can improve your math before going into medicine
First, I’ll let you in on a secret though; I suck at math. I avoid it – as you can see from my story of how I got into medicine – like the plague.
So there is good news. Being bad at it hasn’t stopped me from studying and becoming a doctor.
Nor should it stop you.
Ready to find out why?
Can You Become A Doctor if You’re Not Good at Math?
Before suggesting yes, you absolutely can become a doctor if you’re not good at math, it’s important to break down what math actually is.
Most people think of arithmetic (addition, subtraction etc) as math. Skills important for dosage and pharmacological-based calculations. But that’s more the study of numbers.
Other people think of algebra, geometry, calculus and statistics. All sub-sets of maths that have everything to do with patterns. And this would be the more correct interpretation.
So unpicking the question; first answer this.
Which area of math is it that you perceive yourself to be “bad” at?
Just because you stumble in one area of the subject, doesn’t represent your abilities as a whole.
And even if you’re just “generally bad”, that shouldn’t stop you either. A lot of what you need can be learned or bettered while in med school.
Especially as the best resources (for the more math-heavy subjects) ease you into it gradually.
Do You Have To Be Good At Math To Be A Doctor?
There are lots of doctors who struggle with math. Thankfully, being “good” at it isn’t a strict prerequisite for the job. You can easily graduate from a medical course with only a basic level.
Hence this meme…
Having a solid understanding of math however can help make you a better doctor. It can help you faster and more accurately assess measurements and parameters that could help in urgent care settings.
But there are lots of useful medical tools available for that too.
How Much Math Do I Need for Med School?
My opinion here is not much. At least not consciously anyway.
The heavy subjects on a medical school curriculum; anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology etc, are more about memorization than applied mathematics. Superficially at least.
Almost anyone can excel in these areas. And I’d argue that discipline, habit and the will to study override any incapability in math (or any subject). Having a growth mindset that is not deterred by failure also helps.
Is There A Lot Of Math In Med School?
Once you’re in med school and taking the core medical subjects there isn’t a huge amount of math. Pre-clinical years are where you’ll encounter it most.
Physiology can cause problems. Especially with physics-heavy formulas applied to the respiratory, cardiovascular and renal systems. As can pharmacology (I’m thinking dose-dependency curves) and obviously bio-statistics too (although it is a small part of the curriculum).
But even these can be tackled (as my inferiority in math has proved), with dedication and patience. Breaking down each of the components one-by-one and taking time to understand each part is the best way to approach it.
One resource that helps visualise all of the math-based stuff involved in physiology that I personally found useful is Dr Najeeb. The way he explains laws of physics with lots of diagrams and “teach-me-like-I’m-5” language, is effective.
Here he is in action. Explaining the action potential in a neuron – something that can get quite confusing given it deals in fluctuating negative values!
For the most part though, especially when you clear the first and second years of medical school, you won’t be in the trenches with math on the day-to-day.
And even when you are, the amount of times you’ll be called to bust out a calculator or do a hard equation is rarer still (I can’t recall it ever happening in fact).
Studying medicine, I’d argue, is more about understanding what the math represents. How it can be used to measure rates, pressures and flow. Things computers or machines will obviously do for you once in the hospital itself.
Don’t be scared of it. And don’t be put off medicine because you feel you’re bad at it.
Do You Need Calculus For Med School?
There are few American med schools that ask for calculus. Most just want a basic math requirement – some none at all.
Outside of the U.S., you generally don’t need calculus for med school. British, Australian and most European schools only ask for basic sciences and don’t usually request math.
Princeton has a comprehensive list of U.S. med schools that ask for math (and the few that require calculus). Check it out here.
Do Doctors Use Math?
Unless you’re going heavily into research or med-tech, like some of these math-loving doctors, math won’t be a huge area of medical practice.
Most doctors only really need a good grasp of arithmetic (not math). Being able to add, subtract, divide and multiply on the fly. They also need to know how to read graphs, as well as get a quick understanding of what they represent (it’s a similar story for physics).
Handling lab values too; being able to recognise when they’re outside of the norm etc, is pretty crucial in the role of an effective doctor. But even then references are usually supplied. And the same applies for measuring or analysing an electrocardiogram (ECG) too.
Doctors will usually get a reading here. Not be asked to count the squares.
To close though, it’s worth mentioning that being a clinician is all about applying logic. So although math isn’t being applied directly by most physicians in their line of work it is, I’d argue, underpinning almost everything it is they do.
So understanding it and why it’s important helps.
What to Do if You’re Bad at Math
If you’re worried that you’re bad at math but still want to be a doctor (or are on the path to becoming one), it’s never too late. There’s always time to improve and sharpen up.
Here are some resources I’ve personally used to get better:
- Khan Academy Maths – A completely free and comprehensive video tutorial series with question-based learning
- School Yourself – Free interactive math lessons based on Harvard instructors
- edX – University math-based courses covering a range of topics; basics, chance, calculus, data science etc, that you can again use for free
I also want to mention the excellent Barbara Oakley’s A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). I read this as a pre-med and took a ton from it.
Like me, Oakley was a struggling arts student (languages) before she went on to dominate math and become a top-level engineer and professor at Oakland University. The tips here are golden!
Otherwise you’ll get by just fine if you take things slow and just Google around for anything that’s not immediately coming to you. Have faith!
Do you need to be good at math to become a doctor? No. But it does help.
Here are the key takeaways to stop you becoming intimidated:
- The average med student is notoriously bad at math but it doesn’t stop thousands from graduating each year
- Doctors will mainly be tasked with using arithmetic rather than hard math in clinical settings
- Math is something you can actively work on if you feel it could hold you back from studying medicine
My own experience tells me you shouldn’t worry.
I’m bad at math and I’m becoming a doctor!
Why shouldn’t you?
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.