Medicalese 101: Understanding Medical Terminology

Reviewed Jul 19, 2015

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Summary

Learning a few common terms, prefixes, and suffixes can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

How many times have you finished a discussion with your doctor thinking, “It’s all Greek to me?”

Many intimidating medical terms do have roots in Latin or Greek, and you may find it difficult to translate professional jargon. You shouldn’t feel confused when it comes to your health, however.

People with poor health literacy—the ability to obtain and understand basic health information—are more likely to have a chronic disease, and less likely to receive the health care they need. Take “Medicalese 101” and increase your health literacy.

Understanding your doctor

Take the lead in establishing effective communication with your doctor. Preparation can aid your understanding of health information.

  • Before talking with your doctor, make a list of the issues you need to cover, including why you are calling or visiting, a description of your symptoms or concerns and questions you want to ask.
  • Don’t feel embarrassed to use your list at your doctor’s office. Express your concerns or observations clearly, directly and briefly.
  • Answer your doctor’s questions honestly. If you withhold information, you’re risking your health.
  • Listen effectively. Take notes. Repeat what your doctor tells you in your own words. Check off items on your list as you understand them.
  • Use additional questions to fill in gaps in your understanding. Don’t worry about appearing confused; when it comes to your health, there are no stupid questions.
  • If you still have questions at the end of your visit, ask if a nurse or physician’s assistant can help, or if you can call or send an e-mail message.

You also can conduct some research on your own. Gather information about health problems and medications at the library or from reliable online sources. Verify information with health care professionals.

Learning the language

In communication between doctors and patients, “one problem is the language barrier,” explains Frederick Hecht, MD, president of Hecht Associates Inc. medical genetics consultants and associate chief medical editor for MedicineNet Inc. “Another problem these days is the fragmentation of health care … one of the things that contributes is that the patient feels often at a disadvantage, not just in terms of language, but in terms of other aspects of the relationships. Sharing a common language helps level the playing field. The language of ‘medicalese’ is part of the language between the people who need health care and people who provide it.”

Jargon can facilitate communication between doctors, but confuse their patients. If your doctor uses a term you’re not familiar with, ask for an explanation. Focus your own research on terms associated with your health condition, suggests Dr. Hecht, who serves as director of MedicineNet.com’s medical dictionary and as co-editor in chief of the Webster's New World Medical Dictionary.

Learning a few common terms, prefixes and suffixes also can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

Common terms

  • Acute: A condition that is brief and severe.
  • Ambulatory: Meaning capable of walking about.
  • Benign: Not cancerous; a disease that probably will not lead to death.
  • Chronic: A condition that comes back repeatedly or lasts a long time.
  • Congenital: A condition or defect a person is born with.
  • Degenerative: A disease characterized by a breakdown in the structure of a part.
  • Malignant: A condition that becomes progressively worse and may result in death.
  • Metastatic: A disease that spreads from one place in the body to another, such as cancer.
  • Prognosis: A prediction of the course of a disease process.
  • Syndrome: Signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.
  • Trauma: A wound to the body or the mind.
  • Vital signs: “Vital signs” are measured to complete a total evaluation of the state of health, including temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure.

Common prefixes

  • A- or an-: A prefix indicating “not,” “without” or “less.” Used in terms such as “anemia” (less than normal red blood cells or hemoglobin).
  • Hyper-: A prefix meaning high, excessive or above normal. Used in terms such as “hypersensitivity” (oversensitivity).
  • Hypo-: A prefix meaning low, down or below normal. Used in terms such as “hypoglycemia” (low blood sugar).
  • Macro-: A prefix meaning large or long. Used in terms such as “macrocyte” (large cell).
  • Micro-: A prefix meaning small. Used in terms such as “microcephaly” (small head).
  • Myo-: A prefix denoting a relationship to a muscle. Used in terms such as “myocardial infarction” (heart attack).
  • Patho-: A prefix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “pathogen” (disease agent).
  • Phlebo-: A prefix meaning vein. Used in terms such as “phlebitis” (inflammation of the veins).
  • Poly-: A prefix meaning many. Used in terms such as “polyp” (a mass of tissue).
  • Trans-: Prefix meaning across, over or beyond. Used in terms such as “transfusion” (transfer of blood or blood products from one person into another).
  • Osteo-: Combining form meaning bone. Used in terms such as “osteoporosis” (loss of normal bone density).

Common suffixes

  • -cide: A suffix meaning killing or killer. Used in terms such as “bactericide” (bacteria-killing solution).
  • -ectomy: A suffix indicating surgical removal. Used in terms such as “tonsillectomy” (removal of the tonsils).
  • -itis: A suffix meaning inflammation. Used in terms such as “laryngitis” (inflammation of the voice box).
  • -pathy: A suffix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “neuropathy” (nerve disease).

Resources

http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en.html 

MedicineNet
www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp

PubMed
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed
By Kristen Knight
Source: Frederick Hecht, MD, FAAP, FACMG; www.familydoctor.org; Health Literacy Consulting (http://www.healthliteracy.com/); MedicineNet (www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp); Merriam-Webster OnLine (www.merriam-webster.com); Turku University Language Centre (http://kielikeskus.utu.fi/en/); American Medical Association Guide to Talking to Your Doctor ed. by Angela Perry, MD. John Wiley and Sons, 2001; Working with Your Doctor: Getting the Healthcare You Deserve by Nancy Keene. O’Reilly, 1998.

Summary

Learning a few common terms, prefixes, and suffixes can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

How many times have you finished a discussion with your doctor thinking, “It’s all Greek to me?”

Many intimidating medical terms do have roots in Latin or Greek, and you may find it difficult to translate professional jargon. You shouldn’t feel confused when it comes to your health, however.

People with poor health literacy—the ability to obtain and understand basic health information—are more likely to have a chronic disease, and less likely to receive the health care they need. Take “Medicalese 101” and increase your health literacy.

Understanding your doctor

Take the lead in establishing effective communication with your doctor. Preparation can aid your understanding of health information.

  • Before talking with your doctor, make a list of the issues you need to cover, including why you are calling or visiting, a description of your symptoms or concerns and questions you want to ask.
  • Don’t feel embarrassed to use your list at your doctor’s office. Express your concerns or observations clearly, directly and briefly.
  • Answer your doctor’s questions honestly. If you withhold information, you’re risking your health.
  • Listen effectively. Take notes. Repeat what your doctor tells you in your own words. Check off items on your list as you understand them.
  • Use additional questions to fill in gaps in your understanding. Don’t worry about appearing confused; when it comes to your health, there are no stupid questions.
  • If you still have questions at the end of your visit, ask if a nurse or physician’s assistant can help, or if you can call or send an e-mail message.

You also can conduct some research on your own. Gather information about health problems and medications at the library or from reliable online sources. Verify information with health care professionals.

Learning the language

In communication between doctors and patients, “one problem is the language barrier,” explains Frederick Hecht, MD, president of Hecht Associates Inc. medical genetics consultants and associate chief medical editor for MedicineNet Inc. “Another problem these days is the fragmentation of health care … one of the things that contributes is that the patient feels often at a disadvantage, not just in terms of language, but in terms of other aspects of the relationships. Sharing a common language helps level the playing field. The language of ‘medicalese’ is part of the language between the people who need health care and people who provide it.”

Jargon can facilitate communication between doctors, but confuse their patients. If your doctor uses a term you’re not familiar with, ask for an explanation. Focus your own research on terms associated with your health condition, suggests Dr. Hecht, who serves as director of MedicineNet.com’s medical dictionary and as co-editor in chief of the Webster's New World Medical Dictionary.

Learning a few common terms, prefixes and suffixes also can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

Common terms

  • Acute: A condition that is brief and severe.
  • Ambulatory: Meaning capable of walking about.
  • Benign: Not cancerous; a disease that probably will not lead to death.
  • Chronic: A condition that comes back repeatedly or lasts a long time.
  • Congenital: A condition or defect a person is born with.
  • Degenerative: A disease characterized by a breakdown in the structure of a part.
  • Malignant: A condition that becomes progressively worse and may result in death.
  • Metastatic: A disease that spreads from one place in the body to another, such as cancer.
  • Prognosis: A prediction of the course of a disease process.
  • Syndrome: Signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.
  • Trauma: A wound to the body or the mind.
  • Vital signs: “Vital signs” are measured to complete a total evaluation of the state of health, including temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure.

Common prefixes

  • A- or an-: A prefix indicating “not,” “without” or “less.” Used in terms such as “anemia” (less than normal red blood cells or hemoglobin).
  • Hyper-: A prefix meaning high, excessive or above normal. Used in terms such as “hypersensitivity” (oversensitivity).
  • Hypo-: A prefix meaning low, down or below normal. Used in terms such as “hypoglycemia” (low blood sugar).
  • Macro-: A prefix meaning large or long. Used in terms such as “macrocyte” (large cell).
  • Micro-: A prefix meaning small. Used in terms such as “microcephaly” (small head).
  • Myo-: A prefix denoting a relationship to a muscle. Used in terms such as “myocardial infarction” (heart attack).
  • Patho-: A prefix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “pathogen” (disease agent).
  • Phlebo-: A prefix meaning vein. Used in terms such as “phlebitis” (inflammation of the veins).
  • Poly-: A prefix meaning many. Used in terms such as “polyp” (a mass of tissue).
  • Trans-: Prefix meaning across, over or beyond. Used in terms such as “transfusion” (transfer of blood or blood products from one person into another).
  • Osteo-: Combining form meaning bone. Used in terms such as “osteoporosis” (loss of normal bone density).

Common suffixes

  • -cide: A suffix meaning killing or killer. Used in terms such as “bactericide” (bacteria-killing solution).
  • -ectomy: A suffix indicating surgical removal. Used in terms such as “tonsillectomy” (removal of the tonsils).
  • -itis: A suffix meaning inflammation. Used in terms such as “laryngitis” (inflammation of the voice box).
  • -pathy: A suffix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “neuropathy” (nerve disease).

Resources

http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en.html 

MedicineNet
www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp

PubMed
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed
By Kristen Knight
Source: Frederick Hecht, MD, FAAP, FACMG; www.familydoctor.org; Health Literacy Consulting (http://www.healthliteracy.com/); MedicineNet (www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp); Merriam-Webster OnLine (www.merriam-webster.com); Turku University Language Centre (http://kielikeskus.utu.fi/en/); American Medical Association Guide to Talking to Your Doctor ed. by Angela Perry, MD. John Wiley and Sons, 2001; Working with Your Doctor: Getting the Healthcare You Deserve by Nancy Keene. O’Reilly, 1998.

Summary

Learning a few common terms, prefixes, and suffixes can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

How many times have you finished a discussion with your doctor thinking, “It’s all Greek to me?”

Many intimidating medical terms do have roots in Latin or Greek, and you may find it difficult to translate professional jargon. You shouldn’t feel confused when it comes to your health, however.

People with poor health literacy—the ability to obtain and understand basic health information—are more likely to have a chronic disease, and less likely to receive the health care they need. Take “Medicalese 101” and increase your health literacy.

Understanding your doctor

Take the lead in establishing effective communication with your doctor. Preparation can aid your understanding of health information.

  • Before talking with your doctor, make a list of the issues you need to cover, including why you are calling or visiting, a description of your symptoms or concerns and questions you want to ask.
  • Don’t feel embarrassed to use your list at your doctor’s office. Express your concerns or observations clearly, directly and briefly.
  • Answer your doctor’s questions honestly. If you withhold information, you’re risking your health.
  • Listen effectively. Take notes. Repeat what your doctor tells you in your own words. Check off items on your list as you understand them.
  • Use additional questions to fill in gaps in your understanding. Don’t worry about appearing confused; when it comes to your health, there are no stupid questions.
  • If you still have questions at the end of your visit, ask if a nurse or physician’s assistant can help, or if you can call or send an e-mail message.

You also can conduct some research on your own. Gather information about health problems and medications at the library or from reliable online sources. Verify information with health care professionals.

Learning the language

In communication between doctors and patients, “one problem is the language barrier,” explains Frederick Hecht, MD, president of Hecht Associates Inc. medical genetics consultants and associate chief medical editor for MedicineNet Inc. “Another problem these days is the fragmentation of health care … one of the things that contributes is that the patient feels often at a disadvantage, not just in terms of language, but in terms of other aspects of the relationships. Sharing a common language helps level the playing field. The language of ‘medicalese’ is part of the language between the people who need health care and people who provide it.”

Jargon can facilitate communication between doctors, but confuse their patients. If your doctor uses a term you’re not familiar with, ask for an explanation. Focus your own research on terms associated with your health condition, suggests Dr. Hecht, who serves as director of MedicineNet.com’s medical dictionary and as co-editor in chief of the Webster's New World Medical Dictionary.

Learning a few common terms, prefixes and suffixes also can help demystify what your doctor tells you.

Common terms

  • Acute: A condition that is brief and severe.
  • Ambulatory: Meaning capable of walking about.
  • Benign: Not cancerous; a disease that probably will not lead to death.
  • Chronic: A condition that comes back repeatedly or lasts a long time.
  • Congenital: A condition or defect a person is born with.
  • Degenerative: A disease characterized by a breakdown in the structure of a part.
  • Malignant: A condition that becomes progressively worse and may result in death.
  • Metastatic: A disease that spreads from one place in the body to another, such as cancer.
  • Prognosis: A prediction of the course of a disease process.
  • Syndrome: Signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.
  • Trauma: A wound to the body or the mind.
  • Vital signs: “Vital signs” are measured to complete a total evaluation of the state of health, including temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure.

Common prefixes

  • A- or an-: A prefix indicating “not,” “without” or “less.” Used in terms such as “anemia” (less than normal red blood cells or hemoglobin).
  • Hyper-: A prefix meaning high, excessive or above normal. Used in terms such as “hypersensitivity” (oversensitivity).
  • Hypo-: A prefix meaning low, down or below normal. Used in terms such as “hypoglycemia” (low blood sugar).
  • Macro-: A prefix meaning large or long. Used in terms such as “macrocyte” (large cell).
  • Micro-: A prefix meaning small. Used in terms such as “microcephaly” (small head).
  • Myo-: A prefix denoting a relationship to a muscle. Used in terms such as “myocardial infarction” (heart attack).
  • Patho-: A prefix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “pathogen” (disease agent).
  • Phlebo-: A prefix meaning vein. Used in terms such as “phlebitis” (inflammation of the veins).
  • Poly-: A prefix meaning many. Used in terms such as “polyp” (a mass of tissue).
  • Trans-: Prefix meaning across, over or beyond. Used in terms such as “transfusion” (transfer of blood or blood products from one person into another).
  • Osteo-: Combining form meaning bone. Used in terms such as “osteoporosis” (loss of normal bone density).

Common suffixes

  • -cide: A suffix meaning killing or killer. Used in terms such as “bactericide” (bacteria-killing solution).
  • -ectomy: A suffix indicating surgical removal. Used in terms such as “tonsillectomy” (removal of the tonsils).
  • -itis: A suffix meaning inflammation. Used in terms such as “laryngitis” (inflammation of the voice box).
  • -pathy: A suffix meaning “suffering or disease.” Used in terms such as “neuropathy” (nerve disease).

Resources

http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en.html 

MedicineNet
www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp

PubMed
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed
By Kristen Knight
Source: Frederick Hecht, MD, FAAP, FACMG; www.familydoctor.org; Health Literacy Consulting (http://www.healthliteracy.com/); MedicineNet (www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp); Merriam-Webster OnLine (www.merriam-webster.com); Turku University Language Centre (http://kielikeskus.utu.fi/en/); American Medical Association Guide to Talking to Your Doctor ed. by Angela Perry, MD. John Wiley and Sons, 2001; Working with Your Doctor: Getting the Healthcare You Deserve by Nancy Keene. O’Reilly, 1998.

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical or health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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