can i be a doctor if i'm bad at math?

Can I Be a Doctor If I’m Bad at Math?

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.

Two core subjects you’re expected to build a foundation in during any reputable pre-med course.

I’ll let you in on a secret though; I suck at math. And I avoid it, as you’ll see from reading how I got into medicine, like the plague. So the good news; judging by my progression? Being bad at math hasn’t stopped me. Nor should it stop you.

Here’s 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; which area of math is it that you perceive yourself to be “bad” at? Just because you stumble in one area of the field, doesn’t represent your abilities toward the whole.

Perhaps it’s better to analyse your opinion of your own capabilities here first then. Before writing yourself off for medicine. Because lacking a handle on only one (or a few) areas of math? Doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad at the subject as a whole.

And even if you are (more on this later), that shouldn’t stop you either. A lot of this can be learned or bettered while in med school.

Especially as the best resources (for the more math-based subjects; physiology, pharmacology etc) ease you into it gradually. Strip the subject down to its most basic level.

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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 memorisation 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). As well as having a growth mindset that is not deterred by failure also.

Physiology may prevent 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. As well as breaking down each of the components one-by-one. And taking time to understand each part and what they represent.

One resource that helps visualise all of the math-based stuff involved in physiology that I found very useful is Dr Najeeb. Personally, I find the way he takes things back to their simplest components refreshing. Understanding how math might not be your average medical students’ strong point.

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.

So working on it, during these years, at least? Can obviously help. Even if you struggle. Like I did.

But don’t be scared of it. And don’t be put off medicine because you feel you’re bad at it.

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. Although getting into these residencies – and medical school in the first place (especially in the US where calculus is required) – may, depending on admissions criteria, ask for some math-based educational background.

Most doctors though 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.

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 are 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

Chances are though you’ll probably get by just fine if you take things slow and just Google around for anything that’s not immediately coming to you.

Summary

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?