From diplococcus to cyanosis, the medical terminology that crosses your desk on a daily basis can make your head spin. Looking up the terms can be time-consuming, but without knowing what they mean, you could misunderstand patients and schedule them with the wrong specialist, report the wrong codes when you’re getting preapprovals, or make mistakes during patient conversations.
To quickly and efficiently decipher what the most common medical terms mean, check out these five tips.
1. Look at the Three Parts
In most cases, medical terms are comprised of two or three parts. If you can identify which of the three possibilities are in the medical term you’re looking at, you’ll have an easier time deciphering it:
- The prefix: This may be one letter, or it can be a few letters. It may indicate a place, time or number.
- The root word: This is the fundamental meaning of the phrase and can often stand alone if you remove the prefix and suffix.
- The suffix: Added to the end of the root, this modifies the meaning and can indicate a procedure, condition, disease, or disorder.
While not all words have three parts, many do, so it’s a good idea to be able to identify the three parts when you see a medical term.
Example 1: In the word “dyspepsia,” the prefix is “dys,” which means impaired or difficult. The root word is “pepsia,” which means digestion. Therefore, dyspepsia is impaired digestion, also known as indigestion.
Example 2: In the word “arthrodesis,” the root word is “arthro,” which means joint, and the suffix is “desis,” which means binding or fusion. Therefore, an arthrodesis is joint fusion.
2. Get to Know the Most Common Prefixes, Root Words
Not every practice will perform arthrodesis or see patients with dyspepsia, but there are some commonalities that every practice should know:
- Ab: Away from
- Ad: Toward
- Endo: Inside
- Ecto: Outside
- Ipsi: Same
- Peri: Surrounding
- Sub: Below
- Trans: Across or through
Common Root Words:
- Cephal: Head
- Enter: Intestine
- Derm: Skin
- Myo: Muscle
- Osteo: Bone
- Phag: Eat/swallow
- Pulmo: Lungs
- Rhin: Nose
- Thrombo: Vessel or duct
- Itis: Inflammation
- Ectomy: Surgical removal
- Otomy: Viewing
- Ostomy: Create an opening
- Algia: Pain
- Pathy: Disease
For instance, if you see a patient with rhinitis, you’ll know that it involves inflammation of the nasal area.
3. Check out Your Specialty’s Terms
If you work at a specialty practice, your next step is to get a list of prefixes, root words and suffixes specific to your area of practice. For instance, a cardiology practice would want to learn:
- Cardi: Heart
- Brady: Slow
- Tachy: Fast
- Angio: Vessel
- Stasis: To stop
- Cyte: Cell
- Hemo: Blood
So if you saw a chart for a patient with tachycardia, you would be able to determine that the patient has a fast heart rate. Or if you see a chart documenting hemostasis, you’ll know that the flow of blood has stopped.
4. Start Slowly
Above are a few samples of terms you might need to know, but the actual list of medical prefixes, root words and suffixes is vast and can feel overwhelming if you try and master it all at once. Instead, your best bet is to learn just a few terms a day, and once you ace those, then move on to the next batch. If you see a term you don’t understand, look it up or ask someone what it means rather than glossing over it. This will help you expand your knowledge base.
5. Consider Apps, Flashcards
You’ll find myriad resources that can help you practice your medical terminology know-how, from apps to website and flashcards. Use whichever format is likely to work best for you. For instance, if you want to practice in your car on the drive to work, download an app that shares audio and asks you to repeat terms back.
There’s no single format that works best for everyone—the key is to find the one that works for you and practice frequently.
For more time-tested tips to help you master medical terminology, check out expert Tracy Bird’s FREE online training, “Medical Terminology Training for Your Front Desk Team.” Halt patient complaints, ace insurance claims and crack the medical terminology every front desk staffer needs to operate smoothly. Sign up today!
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