Terminally Bored – Making your way through medical jargon


If any more proof were needed that medical jargon can overwhelm, it’s that 45-letter word right there (Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is actually a type of lung disease; it’s also the longest word in any English dictionary). Ouch.

Bemoaned by patients and NHS staff alike, medical terminology can (and is) tough to get to grips with. But it’s also critically important. Here’s why…

Medical terminology – A painful must-learn for all

From surgery receptionists to admin staff, there are an endless number of NHS workers who support the work of nurses, doctors and other medical professionals. Just one wrong word on the paperwork could have serious consequences.

Then there’s the practice manager – the multi-talented, multi-tasker who underpins the smooth operation of the surgery. They, like doctors, nurses and other staff, are time-pushed. Those minutes saved by him or her having a solid working knowledge of medical terms will always prove helpful.

Finally, there’s another issue. While most patients dislike and avoid medical jargon like the bubonic plague, others may pick up on key medical words and terms that are relevant to them. And if the surgery receptionist greets their medical jargon with a blank look, trust can be diminished before the patients even set foot into the treatment room.

With everyone on the same page, communication is more efficient, room for error is lower and interactions with patients can instil trust.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably (full cup of caffeine hopefully in hand), we’ll begin.

The basics of medical terminology – Four elements, one word

Medical terms can have up to four distinct sections – the root word, the beginning (prefix), the end (suffix), and combining vowels. Let’s explore each one by one.

Root words
The medical world really started gaining pace in Ancient Rome, where Latin, alongside Greek, were the spoken languages. Because of this as the medical profession developed, everything from illnesses to instruments were bestowed with Latin names. These words now underpin the medical profession of today.

Here’s a few examples (you can find the complete list of hundreds of root words over on the Wikipedia page – List of medical roots, suffixes and prefixes, the latter two we dig into in a moment)…
Card – Heart
Ost – Bone
Odont – Tooth
Uro – Urine
Crani – Skull
Encephal – Brain

Beginnings (prefixes)
A prefix, as the name suggests, is the opposite to a suffix and is a term that starts a root word to provide more detail to it. Some examples include…
Anti – Against
Tachy – Fast
Cycl- Circle/cycle
Dermat – Skin
Cerebr – Brain

Endings (suffixes)
Suffixes are tacked onto the end of a word. Again, this is to provide more detail. You may recognise the following common medical suffixes…
Scope – Viewing instrument
Ium – Structure
Acusis – Hearing
Aemia – Blood condition

Combining vowels
As you may now realise, there are some root words/prefix/suffix combinations that lead to complicated, unpronounceable words. For this reason, medical terms become that little bit more complicated with the addition of a vowel (which ensures that people can actually say them!).
Any vowel – a, e, i, o or u – can be used, but it’s most common to see ‘o’ as a combining vowel.
Cardi-o-scope – Instrument for examining the heart
Cardi-o-logy – The study of the heart and how it works
Tachy-card-ia – A rapid heart rate
My-o-card-ium – The muscle tissue of the heart

Acronyms break down multiple words by *usually* taking the first letter of each and using them to form a new word – like TCI which requests a patient ‘To Come In’ to see their clinician. We say *usually* as there are some exceptions to this rule, such as QDS meaning four times a day. This acronym comes from the Latin ‘Quarter die Sumendum’.

Tachy-o-Encephal-Test – the WTF?! Medical Acronym Pop Quiz

By now you should be feeling a little less overwhelmed with what *did* feel like endless medical terms.
To put your medical term knowledge to the test, let’s see if you can tackle the following 15 time-saving acronyms:


Before you go…

If this blog has shown anything, it’s that medical jargon can be dull and heavy on the brain cells. Our ‘Understanding Medical Terminology’ course makes learning medical words and terms fun (yes, really).

Through interactive sessions and group tasks, you and your team can improve your and their ability to use medical words and terms with confidence.

Learn more about our bore-free Medical Terminology Course.

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