Deciphering Medicalese

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

You take your pet’s health seriously. You visit your veterinarian regularly. You listen attentively to explanations and instructions delivered in the examination room. Despite all of this effort, trying to understand what your veterinarian is saying may make your head spin. What language is spoken in veterinary clinics?

If you think your veterinary health care providers are speaking a foreign language, you are not alone. If you do not quite grasp everything you hear or read, do not worry. Deciphering “medicalese” can be tough!

Health Literacy

Medicalese is the specialized terminology of the medical and, for our purposes, veterinary profession. Understanding “medicalese” is based on the foundation of comprehension, i.e., literacy. Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and compute well enough to work and function in society. Health literacy is an extension of basic literacy that goes a bit further. Health literacy is the ability to obtain, process, understand, and retain medical information well enough to make reasonable health care decisions for yourself or for your furry family member. Most health care information is written on a 10th grade level, making it hard to grasp for some people. Plus, doctors often use big, unfamiliar words when speaking. Therefore, understanding “medicalese” is really difficult for many pet owners.

Learning “Medicalese”

As with most foreign languages, it helps to study the basics first. Most medical terms are derived from Greek or Latin words and have several parts. It is easier to understand medical terms if you break them down into these parts.

The three basic parts to medical terms include a word root, which is usually in the middle of the word and cannot stand alone. Roots are supported by a prefix that is positioned in front of the word and indicates number, time, or location (pre=before). Then there is a suffix attached to the end of the word which gives more specific information or qualifies a condition, disease process, or procedure. Here is an inclusive example—pericarditis. “Peri” is a prefix meaning “around.” “Cardia” is a root word meaning “heart.” “Itis” is a suffix meaning “inflammation.” Pericarditis is an inflammation of the outer layer of the heart. Medical terms change meaning by changing prefixes or suffixes. For example, endocarditis refers to inflammation of the inner layer of the heart.

Components of “Medicalese”

Medical terms are less scary when you understand what makes them tick, so take a look at the inner workings of “medicalese.”

Color prefixes can provide excellent clues about the word and its meaning.

In, out, up, down are common directions that you understand. Medical conditions are described directionally, too, indicating where the body is affected. Take a look at these medical directions.

Veterinary medicine involves lots of anatomy. It helps to understand which part of your pet’s body is being discussed in an exam room. Here are some common anatomical references:

Abbreviations and Acronyms
Lots of medical terminology is so long and complex that it boggles the mind; however, efforts to shorten the terms may make matters worse. It is hard to remember all those letters! Here are some common abbreviations and acronyms:

“Medicalese” may not be easy...but that's okay!

These tips only scratch the surface of “medicalese” and will not make you fluent in the language of medicine. But, remember that if you have difficulty understanding your veterinarian, you can ask them to slow down or present the information in a different manner.

Take heart. Many health care professionals are becoming more aware of the importance of health literacy and are working to improve their communication skills. They know that you cannot follow instructions if you do not understand them and you cannot make decisions unless you grasp the options.

Related Articles