Deciphering “Medicalese”

deciphering_medicaleseYou take your dog’s health seriously. You visit your veterinarian regularly. You listen attentively to explanations and instructions delivered in the examination room. But trying to understand what your veterinarian is saying may make your head spin. What language is spoken in veterinary clinics? Is it English or Spanish or Chinese? Or is a vernacular known as “medicalese”?

If you think your veterinary health care providers are speaking a foreign language, you are not alone. If you don’t quite grasp everything you hear or read, don’t feel like you’re illiterate. 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.

A survey by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 9 out of 10 Americans lack the skills to manage their own health care (much less the health care of their pet).  When it comes to general literacy, most people, even those well-educated, read at 3.5 grade levels below their last completed grate. That means that the average reading level in the United States is 8th grade. Health literacy rates are even lower.

Most health care information is written on a 10th grade level, making it hard to grasp. Plus, doctors often use big, unfamiliar words when speaking.  And literacy decreases with increased age putting senior citizens at a greater disadvantage.  So 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’s 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’s an inclusive example—pericarditis. “Peri” is a prefix meaning “around”. “Card” 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. Endocarditis=inflammation of the inner layer of the heart.


Components of “Medicalese”

Medical terms aren’t so scary when you understand what makes them tick, so let’s look at the inner workings of “medicalese”.


Medical terms often include colors like these.

Leuko=white as in leukocytes (white blood cells) and leukemia (abnormal amount of white blood cells).

Melano=dark or black as in melanoma (dark skin tumor).

Cyano=blue as in cyanosis (blue tint to skin due to lack of oxygenation).

 Purpura=purple (describes bruising)


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.

Endo=inside (endoscopy uses a special camera to look (scope out) the inside of the bladder, stomach, knee, etc.)  

Ecto=outside (ectoparasites live on the outside of a pet’s skin).

 Peri=around (peri-anal refers to a lesion around the anus).

Intra=within (intravenous means giving medications within the veins)

Retro=behind (retrosternal refers to the area behind the sternum or breast bone).

Sub=below (sub mandibular is the area under the mandible or jaw bone)

 Epi=on top (epidermis is the top layer of skin)


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:

Derm=skin (Dermatitis is an inflammation (itis) of the skin)

Gastro=stomach (Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach)

Myo=muscle (Myositis is an inflammation of the muscle)

Cardio=heart (Cardiomyopathy is an abnormality (pathy) of the heart muscle (myo))

Hepato=liver (Hepatoma is a tumor of the liver)

Pneumo=lungs (Pneumonia….well you know what that is!)

Nephro =kidney (Nephrotoxic is something that poisons the kidney)

Ortho or osteo=bone (Osteosarcoma is a tumor of the bone. Orthopedist is a bone doctor.)

Optho=eyes (Ophthalmology is the study of the eyes)

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’s hard to remember all those letters! Here are some common abbreviations and acronyms.

CBC=complete blood count, WBC=white blood count, RBC=red blood count

Bid=twice daily, TID=three times daily, Qid=four times daily (think “quad”)

BP=blood pressure

CHF-congestive heart failure

CNS=central nervous system (brain and spinal cord)

DJD=degenerative joint disease

ECG or EKG=electrocardiogram


IBD=inflammatory bowel disease



NSAID=non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug


PO=per os (by mouth)

SC=sub-cutaneously (under the skin)

UTI=urinary tract infection


“Medicalese” may not be easy!

These tips only scratch the surface of “medicalese” and won’t make you fluent in the language of medicine. But, remember that if you have difficulty understanding your veterinarian, you can ask him 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 can’t follow instructions if you don’t understand them and you can’t make decisions unless you grasp the options.

Your veterinarian wants to keep your pet healthy and the fact is that people who are better informed take better care of their pets. Don’t be overwhelmed by “medicalese”. Try your best to understand this foreign language and if you can’t quite decipher it, ask your veterinarian to speak more plainly.

© Copyright 2016 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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