Michelle’s thoughts – Dyslexic nurses and midwives
Michelle is a specialist study skills tutor and mentor at Diverse Learners and where we send our student nurses who need support doing drug calculations. She is also retired midwife and founder of UniSkills where this blog was first posted.
Her first blog about managing mental health – We Really Do Know How You Feel – can be read here
Should patients be worried about being cared for by dyslexic nurses or midwives?
Several years ago the father of a good friend of mine was telling anyone who would listen about his disgust that many nurses found it difficult to do mental arithmetic. He was appalled that ‘adults in this day and age’ were incapable of doing simple maths, but also that these people were caring for ill people in hospitals which was ‘obviously dangerous’ to the patients. He had read this in his regular broadsheet newspaper, and possibly as a consequence of this, had taken it all at face value.
Although the article itself targeted nurses in general, I think there were several issues that were not explained nor considered fully when the article had been written.
Maths in every day life
Firstly, the majority of nurses are female, and within the UK even the mention of maths causes sweaty palms and palpitations to many women. The abstract concept of maths seems to cause a barrier to women particularly. Of course, this doesn’t always occur when working out how much discount you would get if your favourite dress has a 20% discount in Debenhams. As in this particular situation, if mathematical equations are applied to real life situations, that imaginary barrier can be lifted and calculations can be successfully done with great accuracy.
The ability to work with complex maths whilst struggling with everyday numbers has also been demonstrated to me by my daughter a couple of years ago. She told me that when she and 3 of her Uni mates (none of them dyslexic) went out for a meal, they all found it difficult to split the bill and work out any change. A little surprising when you realise that the 4 were all studying for a degree in financial mathematics.
You’ve probably been treated by a dyslexic nurse or midwife
Another consideration is that between 5% and up to as high as 25% of nurses, entering the profession in the last few years, show typical dyslexic tendencies, whether formally recognised or not. Whilst some dyslexics can actually work with complex maths very well, it is highly likely that ‘simple’ mental arithmetic will cause that same person and anyone else with dyslexia, some type of difficulty. It doesn’t however mean that these people can’t do the sums, but that they will have their own ways of doing it.
Practice and overlearning
Put into a nursing scenario, there are many reasons why this difficulty with mental arithmetic does not pose any real problems. Calculating drug doses is where the use of maths is necessary, but the calculations are all based on formulas (I know it’s formulae, but that sounds so pompous!). Once the formulas are learned, they can easily be applied. Nurses, once trained, tend to work on the same ward. Here the medications are very often the same ones, within a particular group, dependant on the illness or medical condition experienced within that ward. So the dosages and strengths of different medications become familiar quite quickly. Anything that veers away from the norm for that area is often double checked as a matter of professionalism – dyslexic staff or not.
Check, check and check again
Secondly, although it is a nurse’s responsibility to ensure the correct dose of medication is given to a patient, it is most often the doctors who are prescribing, and thus making the calculation.
Finally, most staff would use a calculator, to ensure that their calculations are correct. The ability to use a calculator does not require the ability to do mental arithmetic, but does increase the likelihood that the answer is correct. Of course, the input of the calculation itself will have a bearing on this too, and human error is always a possibility.
Often, knowing what your weaknesses are, ultimately becomes a strength.
This possibility of human error leads on to what I think is the major reason why dyslexic healthcare professionals ARE NOT a danger to the patients in their care. When you have spent your life knowing what you find difficult, it makes you hyper vigilant about getting those things right, especially in a professional capacity. So if you know that you’re not great at mental arithmetic, you will be very particular about getting it right in a professional setting.
A final thought – there is also a presence of dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties in those training to be doctors, and heaven forbid, in those that teach medicine too. This means that mental arithmetic won’t come easily to any of them either, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t do their jobs safely, and often better than those who don’t deal with dyslexic weaknesses on a daily basis.
Many media articles don’t give the full story, and I think the one that my friend’s father was referring to, is probably one of them. Oh, and his daughter was severely dyslexic too!
So, my answer to the question is … Absolutely not!
What do you think?