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Medical Math Required in the Medical Field

  1. Jul 12, 2012 #1
    I'm in high school right now and have always dreamed of being a surgeon, so naturally, I read up on an assortment of medical information as well as the pre-requisites of becoming a surgeon. A common pattern I'm finding, is that the medical field requires a good deal of math. However, when I research medical/surgical topics themselves, I see little mathematical based science involved, just anatomical knowledge and surgical technique. So where's the math??? I enjoy math based sciences like physics, for instance, and while physics may not have much involvement, all the pre-req stuff stresses math and physical science based backgrounds. Obviously I know very little about surgical medicine, but could someone please tell me, where is the real math/science based area of medicine, and when does it come into play.
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  3. Jul 12, 2012 #2
    Hello Clayton, Looking into the future is always difficult but here are some thoughts.

    I don't know about american medical schools but you don't actually require maths or physics to study medicine in the UK, though there is no denying they are useful.
    My daughter entered med school with A level Chemistry (which was mandatory), Biology French and German.
    However a doctor friend of ours took a physics degree before starting medicine in Germany.

    A good doctor will want to use any available knowledge for the best interests of patients.

    Looking ahead at greatly increasing sophistication of prosthetics, and the accompanying electromechanical and materials science I see a great future for mathematics/physics based surgery. The proper use of lasers.
    One of my daughter's colleagues is now on the way to specialising in Radiology. She has had to take a crash course in really mind blowing maths that nowadays accompanies the tomography equipment.
    There has been an increasing emphasis on what is known in the jargon as 'evidence based medicine'
    This means that clinical decisions are taken in the light of sophisticated statistical analysis of substantial quantities of data. So mathematical statistics is growing in importance.

    So science and technology is offering more and more to medicine, and much that is on offer needs maths and or physics to understand and apply it correctly.

    Go well in your future endeavours
  4. Jul 12, 2012 #3
    Thanks for all the information! Interesting stuff.
  5. Jul 12, 2012 #4


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    Clayton, I'm in the US and my daughter was pre-med and had planned to go into anesthesiology and it required a TON of math, at least it was more than she wanted to do. So perhaps what field of medicine you go into dictates how much math you need, but I would assume any field of medicine in the US requires a good deal of math in school, as you have seen for yourself.

    Check with your High School counselor, getting good grades in HS are helpful. Also, maybe one of our US med students here can chime in.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  6. Jul 12, 2012 #5
    The minimum pre-med math requirement (US) is two semesters of "college math" with one year of college level calculus specifically required by some schools.


    Because admission is competitive, two years of college level calculus plus one year of statistics-probability theory is sometimes recommended. Whether you need this much math will depend on your specialty, but reading biomedical research papers increasingly requires a good math background.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  7. Jul 12, 2012 #6
    Thanks for the replies. Like I said, I know it's required, my question is when is it actually applied. So SW VandeCarr, you said it's required for understanding research publications? That's pretty interesting, I've always been fascinated with research stuff and so I could definitely see that as a good application for a strong math background.
  8. Jul 12, 2012 #7
    This is particularly true in the neurosciences, cardiology (hemodynamics), pulmonary medicine (diffusion theory), orthopedics and sports medicine (mechanics), cell biology, microbiology (population dynamics), pharmacology, and of course, medical epidemiology (statistics and probability theory). Some specialties like cardiology are particularly research oriented, while others are not, such as the surgical specialties. Surgeons tend to be heavily practice oriented, but a minority do very good research.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  9. Jul 12, 2012 #8
    No one cares if a surgeon can solve a differential equation, but you can be damn sure a surgeon better know where the recurrent branch of the median nerve is for carpal tunnel surgery.
  10. Jul 12, 2012 #9


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    What do you mean by lots of math? t-test? de Rham cohomology?

    Computed tomography does indeed have mathematics related to twistors.
  11. Jul 12, 2012 #10


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    College math courses. Was that somehow not clear? As SW said, most likely calculus and statistics.

    I'd appreciate it if only US medical students or people that have recently become US doctors would respond and state their area of medicine so we can have a meaningful discussion.
  12. Jul 12, 2012 #11


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    I am a medical doctor, with a post-graduate specialisation in Pathology, specifically, Clinical Microbiology. Maybe I can shed a little light, although my advice will be slanted toward the Singapore medical system, so your mileage may vary.

    Depending on the surgical subspecialty, you may be using a little math in your day to day stuff. Orthopaedics surgeons often deal with angles of deformity, and need to do accurate goniometric measurements of ranges of motion, etc. in their follow-up of patients. Neurosurgeons need to have a fair understanding of hydrostatics principles in managing conditions like hydrocephalus, and in measuring cerebrospinal fluid pressures and managing shunts that have been put in place to relieve intracranial pressure. Stereotactic brain surgery needs even more precision, but the math is probably all going to be done by computers. As an obstetrician, you'll have to be quick with simple mental arithmetic to calculate the gestational age, expected due date, gravity and parity status, etc, but there are simple hand held calendrical calculators to do all this stuff.

    Surgeons are of course, medical doctors, and as a doctor, you'll need to use math to titrate dosages, react to abnormal values appropriately (e.g. calculate the right dose of insulin to administer to a patient in a particular state of hyperglycemia). You'll also need to use simple math (including square roots) in interpreting electrocardiograms (ECGs, or EKGs as they're known in the US). There are formulae used to estimate Creatinine Clearance (a measure of excretory kidney function) using the serum creatinine, weight, body surface area, age, sex, etc. and a relation known as the Cockcroft-Gault equation. So you see, lots of simple math in workaday medical stuff, but nothing that really stresses you beyond high-school level stuff.

    If you do certain other specialisations, more math/physics may be required. For example, if you specialise in Radiation Oncology, you may need to calculate very precise doses of radiation so as to treat, but not overtreat, your patients. If you do epidemiology, you may need LOTS of math to do mathematical modelling, including ordinary and partial differential equations and various stochastic methods. But this is really a fringe discipline, strictlykfor the mathematically-inclined.

    In medical school, here's a breakdown of the math that may be required:

    Biochemistry: basic organic chem involves some fiddling around with dissociation and acid-base-buffer equilibria. You may need to solve quadratic equations to resolve some problems. Enzyme kinetics involve simple mathematical models like Michaelis-Menten kinetics and Hill kinetics. You'll need to understand the solution of first order ordinary differential equations to derive those equations which yield you Km and Vmax values, and the principle of first-order kinetics. You'll need to design and carry out experiments that involve careful titration of micromolar concentrations. You may need to use a UV spectrophotometer (we did).

    Physiology: understanding ionic equilibria involves a good working grasp of the Nernst equation and the Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equilibrium. You'll need to really "get" all this when you try to describe how an action potential is generated, and its sequelae. Some other stuff like visual physics, and auditory physics - including understanding the decibel scale, sound intensity i. W/m^2, etc.

    Pharmacology: apart from titrating doses by body weight/surface area, you'll need to understand drug kinetics very well. This involves concepts like first-pass metabolism and the area-under-the-curve, which is defined as [itex]\int_0^{\infty} C(t)dt[/itex], where C(t) is the concentration of drug at time t. Half-life, steady-state (at approx. 5 half-lives), drug peak and trough concentrations are all concepts you need to be familiar with.

    Community medicine, epidemiology: lots of math here. You'll need to cover basic statistics, covering both parametric (t-test, etc.) and non-parametric (Spearman rho, etc.) tests. You may need to do systematic reviews that involve meta-analysis, using fixed or random-effects models and the appropriate statistics.

    I hope I've painted a reasonably complete picture of the sort of math you may encounter in Medicine. Good luck! :smile:
  13. Jul 13, 2012 #12


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    No, that is not clear. Where does he state that?

    Wow, Evo, you gave me an infraction for asking an honest question?

    I'm dismayed.
  14. Jul 13, 2012 #13
    Thank you very much for such an in depth reply! That was exactly the kind of info I was looking for. You definitely helped clear that up for me.
  15. Jul 13, 2012 #14
    Sorry I didn't make that clear. I mean med school pre-reqs require a good deal of math that I didn't see in the practice itself, but I think I'm a little more clear on the subject now.
  16. Jul 13, 2012 #15
    usually atleast Calculus I and II
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