The Language of Healthcare: Learning Medical Terminology

March 20, 2013


Update 6/8/2015: Check out our updated guide and discover even more useful advice and tips for learning medical terminology easily.

Medical terminology is the standardized means of communication within the healthcare industry. The importance of fluency in medical terminology, which applies to all hospital personnel, including allied healthcare professionals, cannot be overstated.

Medical terminology eases clinical proceedings and enables everyone involved in the process of treatment and care to perform more efficiently for the patient's benefit. Very often within the clinical environment, medical terminology is composed of abbreviations and understanding them makes documentation much faster and easier.

Although it seems scary at first glance, medical terminology is not rocket science. The majority of terms are derived from Greek and Latin and the science-based vocabulary follows a systematic methodology; each term contains two or three components and can be broken down into parts.

The best way to learn medical terminology is to become familiar with the structure and the most commonly used components.

Basic Components of Medical Terms

Most medical terms consist of three basic components: root word (the base of the term), prefixes (letter groups in front of the root word) and suffixes (letter groups at the end of the root word). When placed together, these three components define a particular medical term.

Anatomy Book

Davi Ozolin / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

For example, the term subhepatic, which means "situated under/on the ventral side of the liver" and refers to the interlobular branches of the portal vein, is a medical term that consists of the aforementioned three components. "Sub" is the prefix meaning "below or under." The word root hepat- means "liver" and the suffix -ic means "pertaining to".

Medical terminology also includes the so-called combining vowels like "i" or "o", which help ease the pronunciation between a word root and the prefix or suffix.For example, in the term osteopathy, oste- is the word root, o is the combining vowel, and -pathy is the suffix.

The same rule applies for the term cardiovascular, where "cardi" is the root word and "vascular" the suffix.

Tips and Tricks in Learning Medical Terminology

Medicine is a language of its own and knowing medical terminology is the foundation of practicing any healthcare-related career.

Mastering this language is a complex task, but with the appropriate learning resources and some valuable tricks there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to learn medical terminology quickly and effectively.

Make flash cards

Balancing a Book Pile on Your Head

Alexandre Dulaunoy / Flickr / CC BY-SA

Medical terminology is usually taught by body system, so for each system make flash cards that can help you study.

Write the medical term on the front of the card and its definition on the back.

When you look at a particular term, you can guess the definition and then check if it's correct. The final goal here is to get to a point where you won't have to check if you are correct.

This repetitive study method will help you learn the medical terminology through visualization.

The process of making the cards will be as valuable as studying them.

Use the Medical Dictionary

Using the medical dictionary will enrich your vocabulary and deepen your understanding of the meanings and use of medical terms. Look up each new word and see what language it comes from and how it is pronounced. Do some further research and see how else this particular word is used other than the examples given in the context of medicine.

Play Games

There are a variety of games and quizzes that can help you learn medical terminology through practice. They also introduce a little fun to (otherwise) tiring theoretical learning. Multiple choice, memory and matching games are a perfect fit when trying to learn terminology.

Nowadays, there are plenty of software applications for Android and iPhone smartphones that are designed exclusively for students to help them learn and practice.