Health Literacy

National Library of Medicine Offers Medical Vocabulary Tutorial

Words matter and can be confusing, especially when they denote different things to different people or in certain contexts. “Love” means one thing on Valentine’s Day and another on the tennis court. The word “point” conjures numerous meanings—a detail, the sharp end of a pin or a finger singling out something in the distance. To old-school graphic designers like me, a point is also a unit of measurement; there are 12 points in a pica.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) offers a simple example of a specialized definition of a common word:

You take your child’s temperature and it is 99.5 degrees. You call the doctor and say your child has a fever of 99.5 degrees. She says, “That’s not a fever.” What does she mean?

What is going on? To you, a fever is anything above 98.6 degrees. To the doctor, a fever is a temperature over 100.4 degrees.

Recognizing that vocabulary’s plays an important role in health literacy, NLM offers a tutorial in medical vocabulary on its MedlinePlus website. Through MedlinePlus, NLM offers medical and wellness information that is independent, trusted, non-commercial and accessible to the general public for free. Many of the resources are designed to be helpful to patients and family members looking for information about specific diseases and conditions they face. Health professionals will also find information relevant to their work as well as educational materials to be shared with patients.

The vocabulary tutorial may not appeal to a huge audience, but it offers background and guidance for decoding medical terminology that I find helpful and oddly reassuring. Facing words like “esophagogastroduodenoscopy” and “colonoscopic polypectomy,” the tutorial seems to say, “Don’t panic. Let’s look at this together and see what sense we can make. This may not be as bad as it seems.”

Most of the tutorial focuses on far simpler words, breaking them down into prefix/beginning, middle and suffix/ending and supplying clear definitions for foreign terms used ubiquitously in medicine. Illustrations show that brain = enceph, nose = rhino, etc. Many medial terms are the sum of their parts and with some simple guidance begin to make sense.

At the private high school I attended long ago, my class was the first that was not required to take Latin, so I didn’t. I’ve wished ever since that I had. Though I’ve been a medical writer for a long time, I appreciate the tutorial for painlessly filling gaps in my knowledge.

Patients and family members shouldn’t have to learn Latin or take online vocabulary quizzes to understand what their physicians are saying about their care and condition. But for some, grappling with coded information they don’t understand, reading medical literature intended for clinicians, or simply for the pleasure of learning, the tutorial and many other resources on MedlinePlus are a treasure trove.

Other resources on Medline include Word Parts and What They Mean, Common Abbreviations and Health Topics.


Susan Carr Susan Carr is a medical editor and writer specializing in patient safety and engagement. In addition to curating the EngagingPatients blog, she produces publications for the Betsy Lehman Center in Boston and the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. Susan lives and works in Lunenburg, Massachusetts.

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