First, math courses are required as part of college work in the pursuit of most degrees in the health care field. The level of required achievement is different, depending on the degree sought. For example, a student pursuing an LPN may take a semester or two of college algebra. A pre-med student is often required to take one or two semesters of calculus. A student pursuing a master's degree in health care administration will take courses in statistics, finance and accounting. The master's candidate can perhaps more easily see the relevance of the required math courses toward the future career. For the nursing student studying algebra or the pre-med student struggling through calculus, the correlation between academic study and actual practice may be unclear. They may wonder why they must undertake these courses, which seem to have little to do with the work in which they will eventually be engaged.
Reduced to its essence, mathematics is about problem solving. So, too, is the health care profession. Patients do not feel well. They exhibit symptoms. Doctors investigate so that healing can take place. Perhaps a care center has outgrown its physical facility; administrators may develop a fundraising campaign with the goal of building a new wing that will accommodate more patients or house the latest diagnostic equipment. Although mathematics may not be a major part of these endeavors -- outside the calculations needed for prescriptions, for example, or the accounting practices employed to track contributions -- it is the process of problem solving that math teaches us, and which we can apply to these and other situations that present themselves in the field.
Math teaches us that problem solving is a logical process. There are a series of steps that must be followed if there is any hope of reaching a conclusion. As Stein points out, not all mathematical questions have answers -- at least, not that can be found at the present time. It is not the answers fail to exist; we just do not currently have the tools or the information to find them. This is also true in health care, where the government has yet to find a solution to skyrocketing costs and access to good care by all citizens. There are still no cures for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, diabetes, Lou Gehrig's disease, among others. We can treat the symptoms of the common cold -- at a cost of nearly $40 billion a year (Marketplace, 2011) -- but a cure is still elusive. Just as there are now solutions to math conundrums that once seemed impossible to solve, so, too, have advances been made in health care to address the problems mentioned, and others as well.
Perhaps the lesson that math best teaches is that there is a solution to every problem. We may not be able to figure it out, but that does not mean a solution does not exist. The solution may be one that surprises us; we had an idea to solve a problem, but it turned out differently than expected. For many of life's problems, as with math, there is often more than one way to arrive at a solution. In some instances, there is even more than one correct solution.
Thinking like a mathematician does not necessarily require the use of numbers, symbols, or geometric shapes. It requires a definition of the problem and a logical process towards resolution. The average student may argue against learning math beyond the basics needed to balance a checkbook, calculate the number of board feet needed to build a tool shed, double a recipe, or figure out how many miles a new car gets to the gallon. Learning to "do" math is learning how to problem solve. It is an essential ability for everyone to develop, no matter how the skill is applied in professional and personal life.
Marketplace Money. (2011). The cost of the common cold. American Public Media.
Retrieved from http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/01/21/mm-why-its-
Paris, N. (2007). Hawking to experience zero gravity. London Telegraph 26 Apr 2007.
Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1549770/Hawking-to-experience-zero-gravity.html
Stein, J.D. (2009). How math explains the world. New York: Harper Collins eBooks [Kindle