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Maths, meds and me


Nothing haunts me more than the dreadful memory of being cornered in the treatment room by an enthusiastic mentor who merrily said that it was time to show her my drug calculations skills.


Chloe Alden-Dennis, child branch editor

Oh no, no, no!

I have always struggled with maths. At the start of my nursing training the thought of mental arithmetic, under pressure, with someone waiting expectantly for an answer nearly put me off doing the course altogether.

What if I am asked the simplest of questions and I’m in such a panic I can’t remember any of my times tables?

I don’t think I am alone in my fear of drugs calculations and tension runs very high at university when exam day comes.

“I imagined my name in the news headlines as the nurse that caused a terrible drug error because she couldn’t add up”

I chatted about this recently with Elouise Haikney, my friend and fellow children’s nursing student and this is what she had to say:

“The drug calculation exam sounded very daunting at first…100% or fail! But once I knew the formula I felt happier and when I got the first one out of the way it wasn’t so bad.”

But I failed my first exam; I made one silly mistake which really knocked my confidence.

It seemed like everyone else in my cohort had passed.

I fought back the tears as I sloped past a group of cheering students all hugging and planning celebratory drinks in the pub. I imagined my name in the news headlines as the nurse that caused a terrible drug error because she couldn’t add up.

What’s more, it’s even trickier for children’s nurses as we have the extra challenge of working out medication according to weight. We give drugs to tiny premature babies right up to strapping teenagers.

“I needed to get better… and quickly!”

I felt driven to get better at drugs calculations as I know it’s an important part of nursing and I wouldn’t be able to avoid it for ever. I needed to get better… and quickly!

There are lots of online practice tests so I knuckled down and worked through them. I discovered that quite a few other students were retaking the exam so I wouldn’t be sat there on my own.

I was over the moon to pass the retake exam and then the midway exam. I even treated myself to a cheeky glass of wine to celebrate… well, I felt like I’d deserved it!

The hard work had paid off.

Back on the ward, I thought to myself: “Bring it on, curiously cheerful mentor! I certainly do want to show you my drugs calculations.”

If I had a few minutes free, I would practice sums on the back on a paper towel. Occasionally, I made mistakes; but I’m now better at spotting where I’ve gone wrong.

“It’s good to know roughly what answer you’re expecting”

I no longer have palpitations at the prospect of using my maths skills, and if I’m struggling or need more time I just say so. Many of the qualified nurses I’ve met admit that drugs calculations worry them and they always double check their answers.

Calculators seem commonplace in practice but it’s good to know roughly what answer you’re expecting. Drug errors are an ongoing issue in the NHS and as I head towards that qualification date, I know I don’t want to add to the problem.

My final drugs calculation exam looms on the horizon and this time I need to know about IV’s. My old fears are surfacing so I must get practicing again. I’d say to any student nurses who have a maths fear you are not alone so don’t sweat it!


Chloe Alden-Dennis is Student Nursing Times’ child branch student editor

Nursing Times Learning has an in-depth drugs calculations unit to help you learn in your own time and master equations and formulas. Free for NT subscribers, or £10 +VAT for non-subscribers.

Just keeping practicing, get in on as many drug rounds as you can when on placement, and if you don’t know, be brave and ask.


Readers' comments (7)

  • michael stone

    'Calculators seem commonplace in practice but it’s good to know roughly what answer you’re expecting.'

    It isn't merely good - if you are using a calculator, it is essential to already have a correct but approximate answer in mind (or to check the answer by working one out afterwards) because the easiest mistake with a calculator, is to be wrong by a factor of 10.

    But I'm sure that for most drug calculations, with experience comes 'a mental list of the type of answer to be expected', so the problem shrinks with practice.

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  • wish the resident troll would just go away!

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  • It's good to know I'm not alone! With my first maths exam just 6 weeks away I'm already dreading it!

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  • michael stone | 20-Oct-2014 2:03 pm

    aren't there any chemistry magazines you could go and troll on instead? you might even expand their body of knowledge if your claims to a degree in the subject are true!

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  • michael stone

    Anonymous | 24-Oct-2014 10:09 pm

    In what way, was my post above, either flawed or not relevant to this topic ?

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  • Summer Davidson

    Love this article! So funny and well written, and perfectly encapsulates my current feelings.

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  • 10 weeks away from my math exam and I am totally dreading it. Drug calculations to me is like learning a foreign language i got 1 wrong in second year but that was acceptable but also with a calculator. !00% this time round no margin for error this year.. I'm not holding my breath I will pass first time lol

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