Nursing studies

What to do if you’re struggling with maths

Numerical calculations are part of everyday nursing. Here's how to improve your skills

Numerical calculations are part of everyday nursing, whether for drug rounds or fluid balance charts. Here's how to improve your skills

Woman undertaking maths calculation on a chalkboard
Picture: iStock

If you are a nursing student who struggles with maths, rest assured you are not alone.

Maths is certainly not my strong point; I had to retake GCSE maths before I started my nursing course, but five years on I have undertaken many complex drug calculations.

Why good maths skills matter in nursing

Poor numerical skills among health professionals were highlighted recently in an analysis commissioned by Health Education England, which found that almost a quarter of trainees who left a nursing associate programme in England did so due to failing their academic assessments, including numerical assessments.

Whether we like it or not, good maths skills are important for delivering safe nursing care. Not only are good numerical skills required for calculating complex drug infusions, they are needed in many other everyday nursing tasks, such as fluid balance calculations.


Tips for getting your numbers right

You don’t need to be a mathematician, but having a good grasp of maths is essential. So if this is something you struggle with, and working out drug calculations makes you feel nervous, here are my top tips for getting the numbers right.

  • Practise, practise, practise The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ couldn’t be more apt when it comes to maths, so make a conscious effort to spend 15-20 minutes a day practising your maths skills. It will make all the difference to your confidence and numerical knowledge.
  • Get to grips with the basics Carrying out the more complicated drug calculations means grasping the foundations first. Check out GCSE-related workbooks and websites to refresh your memory before investing in a drug calculation book.
  • Don’t rely on a calculator Improving your mental maths skills can help to reduce error, as you will have an estimate in your head of what the answer should be, which you can then check with a calculator. Some trusts discourage the use of calculators, particularly among students, so get into the habit of being able to demonstrate how you worked out a calculation. This could also be required if you have to sit an exam on drug calculations for an interview.
  • Gain as much medicines management experience as you can during clinical placements and take the initiative by completing tasks that require maths skills. Although it can be intimidating and you may want to shy away from this, the clinical environment is the best place to learn. Your colleagues, particularly those in the practice education team, can help and support you and you will get a more accurate picture of the types of calculations you will be expected to work out.
  • Know your formulas These will help you when working out your drug calculations. Print out any formulas you may need and keep them handy so you can refer back to them.
  • If you are struggling, seek support early Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of, so use the educational teams around you, both in clinical practice and at university. There are also many online resources you can access for free where you can practise your drug calculations, and speak with practice educators to see if they have a practice paper (usually given to newly qualified nurses) that you could use. 
Two nurses undertaking drug calculations for patient medications on the ward
Picture: iStock

Know your limits and test them to build confidence

If you are a newly qualified nurse who struggles with maths, don’t feel under pressure to do anything you are not comfortable with. For example, don’t check medicines if you don’t feel confident working them out.

Instead, observe how to work out the calculation with a clinical educator or your preceptor, and then practise so you feel more confident and competent.  

And don’t rush to get your medication competencies signed off before you are ready. Take as much time as you need and ask for support from the educational team if you need it.

Nicola Wiafe, staff nurseNicola Wiafe is a staff nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit @_xniicc

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