Medical Terminology

I usually read Dr. Donahoe’s medical column in the paper in the mornings and am frequently struck by the number of submissions that run something like this: "My doctor has informed me that I have pyogranulomatous myxosarcoma. Could you explain to me what that is, what my prognosis is, and what the treatments are" (I actually just made up that condition, but you get the point.) I am left with the mental image of a doctor popping his head into the room where a patient is anxiously awaiting a diagnosis, announcing the name of the problem in incomprehensible medicalese, and then popping his head back out and disappearing. I can’t imagine how desperate one would have to be to have to turn to a newspaper columnist for an explanation of one’s medical condition rather than get that information from the doctor who made the diagnosis. I generally hope that the question has just been rephrased to be more succinct in order provide more space for the discussion of the problem, but sometimes I wonder.

Medical terminology can be both a blessing and a curse. It allows for precise and accurate communication about the nature of the problem between medical professionals across regions and even internationally. Instead of guessing what is meant by colloquial terms like "Dropsy" "Sweating Sickness" and "Wolly Burry" there are precise and specific terms that describe the problem, and those terms will mean the same thing to everyone who is familiar with medical terminology. On the other hand, for those who are not familiar with medical terminology, or fluent in Greek or Latin, it seems more like a secret code to keep the uninitiated from being able to understand what is going on.

It is appropriate and necessary for doctors to use standard medical terminology when making notes and when discussing cases with colleagues, but sometimes the language becomes so routine to the doctor that it is hard to remember that not everyone has the same vocabulary and that technical terms need to be clearly explained in normal language to clients and patients too. The problem can be compounded when a client or patient feels reluctant to request clarification because they worry that it will make them look stupid. Keep in mind that lack of understanding is usually caused by the doctor not being clear, not by the client being dumb. Asking for clarification shows interest in understanding the issue, not lack of intelligence.

For all the intimidation medical lingo causes, it is actually a fairly straightforward collection of standard prefixes, root words, and suffixes. (after all, even doctors and veterinarians have to be able to learn it) The mix and match nature of the terminology means we get lots of mileage out of fewer words. Two frequently used prefixes are hyper-, meaning too much of something, and hypo-meaning too little of something. It is not terribly helpful that two opposite words sound and look similar, but that is Greek for you. The root word is usually the Latin or Greek term for the body part involved. Sometimes there is a suffix which suggests the process that is happening, for example -itis means inflammation, and -osis and -opathy means some non-defined non-inflammatory process.

Terminology associated with cancer is particularly fraught with misunderstanding and conflicts between colloquial use and technical meaning. Words like tumor, cancer, and cancerous, often seem to mean different things to different individuals, and those interpretations are often different from the medical interpretation of the terms as well.

The thing to keep in mind when getting bombarded with unfamiliar lingo is that it is not only allowable, it is necessary to make sure that you get a reasonably clear picture of what is going on. I always get a good dose of my own medicine whenever my car has a problem. I am vaguely aware of the existence of things like timing belts and alternators and what they are supposed to do, but if you asked me to draw a diagram of the anatomy and physiology of my car I would be at a bit of a loss. As the mechanic patiently explains the issue to me I make sure to think to myself that this is exactly what my clients feel like when I am discussing medical problems with them, and I try to carry the understanding of that feeling with me when I talk with people. Clients and patients should ask for nothing less.