How to Use Medical Terminology

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Health care workers including physicians, nurses, medical transcriptionists, insurance coders and claims processors, medical technicians and other allied health professionals must have a working knowledge of medical terminology. Medical terminology refers to those words, phrases, symbols, and abbreviations used in medical language. This universal language describes the equipment, tools, procedures and drugs used in treating patients. Because health care professionals in various areas of specialty must relay information to each other, there are numerous instances in which it is necessary to use medical terminology.

Save time when documenting a patient’s symptoms, history, diagnosis, and treatment to be entered into the permanent medical record. There are hundreds of common abbreviations used for patient charting that allow doctors to quickly record information and give instructions to patients and other medical personnel.

Discuss a patient’s condition. Medical terminology permits health care professionals to communicate their observations or other information related to the patient in writing. Use of this universal language gives doctors, nurses and other allied health workers the ability to share information with each other in terms that they all will understand.

Describe diagnostic, surgical, and common clinical procedures used to treat disease and injury. Physicians use medical terminology to describe their findings when reporting test results and in making a prognosis. One study found, however, that when doctors communicate information to patients in terms of medical rather than lay terms, patients are more likely to worry that they have a rare disease or are seriously ill (see Reference 2). The Canadian study funded by the National Science and Engineering Research Council suggests that how well a patient understands the diagnosis influences how much fear and anxiety that she may feel in response to the diagnosis, a factor crucial in making informed health decisions.

Distinguish among different types of drugs. Medical terminology is useful in defining drug classifications and identifying commonly used medications. Pharmacological terms used in medical vocabulary provide a resource for maintaining guidelines when it comes to prescribing care.

Submit medical insurance claim forms to insurers for payment. The concepts of medical billing rely on the accurate use of medical terminology for timely reimbursement of medical services rendered. Because medicine has a language all its own, having even a fundamental knowledge of medical terminology leads to a better understanding of the prefixes, suffixes, and root words that make up more complex medical terms. Whether submitting or processing medical claims, you must be familiar with the symbols, abbreviations and many acronyms common to medicine.

Transcribe medical reports, the official written record of medical information. Medical transcriptionists type the information from dictated recordings; therefore, they must be able to identify and correctly spell medical terms. Transcriptionists need a fluent understanding of medical terminology in order to use the terms in the proper context. Medical terminology is used when documenting patient history, consultations, discharge summaries, physical examinations, and operative reports.


The root word of a medical term usually describes a part of the body. The prefix at the beginning may designate location or number. The suffix following the root word typically specifies a condition or process (see Resources below). Prefixes and suffixes tend to have their origins in Greek or Latin.

Understanding medical terminology requires knowledge of basic anatomy and physiology when using terms related to the body’s organ systems and major regions of the body.