Reading Healthcare: A Medical Terminology Study Guide for Patients, Students and Professionals

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A healthcare worker reviews medical terminology on her laptop.

Translating difficult-to-understand medical terms in a way that patients can digest and appreciate can be challenging. “Even as we focus on being as clear as we can be, we can’t know how other healthcare providers explained things and how those explanations may differ from our own way of explaining and educating,” Ann J. Brady, MSN, RN-BC, CHPN, explains in Oncology Nurse Advisor. “In other words (pun intended), the language of medicine is itself confusing. All of which makes patient communication a challenge.”

The challenge that Brady describes is very real in our current healthcare environment. Doctors and practitioners have a responsibility to inform patients as much as they possibly can, but much can be lost in translation due to the field’s complex terminology. By breaking down certain terms too simply, patients may misunderstand their affliction or its scope and severity.

This struggle highlights the benefit and importance of understanding the medical terminology list. Not all of these terms are easy to remember, which is why this medical terminology study guide can help patients, students and professionals in their health education efforts.

Medical Terminology List

Here is a list of medical terms that are frequently used in healthcare settings. While the list does not include every medical term used in healthcare facilities on a day-to-day basis, it highlights common terminology (many of which are prefixes) that can be beneficial for all audiences to understand.

  • Blast. Refers to an immature cell, often known as a precursor or stem cell. “For example, neuroblasts give rise to nerve cells, and angioblasts give rise to blood vessel cells,” according to Verywell Health.
  • Carcin. Refers to something that is cancerous. For example, a carcinogen is something that can cause cancer.
  • Cardio. Refers to something that is centered around, related to or involving the heart. For example, cardiology is the study of heart health and abnormalities. Someone who specializes in and practices cardiology is a cardiologist.
  • Derma. Refers to something that is centered around, related to or involving skin. For example, dermatology is the study of the skin, and a practitioner in this field is a dermatologist.
  • Histio. Refers to tissue. For example, MedlinePlus states, “Histiocytosis is a general name for a group of disorders or ‘syndromes’ that involve an abnormal increase in the number of specialized white blood cells that are called histiocytes.”
  • Hepati. Refers to the liver. For example, hepatitis is a condition in which the liver has become inflamed.
  • Gastro. Refers to the stomach. For example, gastroparesis is a condition in which movement in the stomach muscles are impacted, and the stomach can no longer empty correctly.
  • Malign. Refers to something that is cancerous instead of benign. For example, a benign tumor is harmless, while a malignant tumor is one that can spread cancer throughout a body.
  • Neuro. Refers to nerves. For example, neurology is the study of the nervous system and conditions that can impact it, and a neurologist is a person who specializes in this field.
  • Onco. Refers to a tumor. For example, oncology is the study of the prevention and treatment of cancer and tumors. An oncologist is a person who specializes in this field.
  • Ortho. Refers to something straight. For example, an orthodontist is a person who focuses on straightening the position of teeth.
  • Osteo. Refers to a bone or bones. For example, osteoporosis is a condition that impacts bone quality and density.
  • Paed. Refers to a child. For example, pediatrics is a branch of medicine that focuses on treating children and adolescent health conditions.
  • Paleo. Refers to something that is old. For example, a paleo diet incorporates foods that prehistoric humans once ate.
  • Pancreat. Refers to the pancreas. For example, pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Poly. Refers to many or a lot. For example, colon polyps are small clumps of cells on the lining of the colon.
  • Toxo. Refers to something that is poisonous. For example, toxoplasmosis is “a disease that results from infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sources: GlobalRph, Medical Terminology: A Thru Z Mayo Clinic, “Paleo Diet: What Is It and Why Is It So Popular?” Mayo Clinic, Toxoplasmosis MedlinePlus, Histiocytosis Verywell Health, “Blast Cells and Myeloblasts Overview”

Medical Terminology List: Suffixes

Here is a list of suffixes that are frequently used in medical terminology. You may find medical professionals using these suffixes at hospitals and clinics. They may also be used in day-to-day interactions with friends who are describing their current health conditions. Learning these suffixes can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of ailments, afflictions, and treatments.

  • Gram. Refers to a record or a written account of something. For example, a mammogram is a medical picture of a woman’s breast that can be used to determine if there are indications of cancer.
  • Ism. Refers to the process or condition of something. For example, hyperthyroidism is the condition of a person’s thyroid generating too much of a particular hormone.
  • Itis. Refers to inflammation. For example, acute bronchitis is when “the airways of the lungs swell and produce mucus in the lungs,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Oma. Refers to swelling or a tumor. Medical News Today notes, “Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two most common types of skin cancer.”
  • Ology/Ologist. The study of a specific type of medicine and the professional who specializes in it. For example, pulmonology is the study of respiratory system health, Healthline notes. A pulmonologist is someone who specializes in this field.
  • Pathy. Refers to disease. For example, neuropathy is a nerve disease, MedicineNet notes.
  • Pexy. Refers to putting something into place, often by surgical means. For example, nephropexy is a surgical procedure that involves the fixation of floating kidneys.
  • Phobia. Refers to fear. For example, agoraphobia is “is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed,” the Mayo Clinic notes.
  • Plasm. Refers to something that is formative, often of a living thing or tissue. For example, neoplasm is “an abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should,” according to the National Cancer Institute.
  • Plegic. Refers to paralysis. For example, a paraplegic is someone whose lower half has become paralyzed.
  • Scopy. Refers to an examination of something. For example, a colonoscopy is an examination of the inside of one’s colon.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis)Healthline, “What Is a Pulmonologist?”Mayo Clinic, AgoraphobiaMayo Clinic, Colon Polyps Medical News Today, “What’s to Know About Carcinoma?”MedicineNet, “Medical Definition of Pathy” National Cancer Institute, NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms

Medical Terminology List: Prefixes

Just as with suffixes, knowing different medical prefixes—including their meaning and how they can be used—can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of health and medicine. The following prefixes are found in medical terms that are used frequently in health settings or even in day-to-day life.

  • Contra. Refers to being against or opposed. For example, a contraceptive works to block the act of conception.
  • Endo. Refers to being within something. For example, the endocrine system refers to the internal glands that release hormones into the blood.
  • Hemi. Refers to half of something. For example, hemiplegia is paralysis on one vertical side of the body, according to Healthline.
  • Hyper. Refers to being excessive. For example, hypertension or high blood pressure “is a common condition in which the long-term force of the blood against your artery walls is high enough that it may eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease,” the Mayo Clinic notes.
  • Hypo. Refers to being below the normal amount. For example, hypotension refers to low blood pressure that could cause health problems.
  • Macro/Micro. Refers to large and small, respectively. Both macrophages and microphages are types of immune cells, although macrophages are larger.
  • Pseudo. Refers to being false. For example, pseudopsychosis resembles psychosis but is not the same thing.
  • Retro. Refers to something that is behind or backward. For example, retrolental fibroplasia refers to an abnormal amount of tissue behind the eye.
  • Sub. Refers to under or below. For example, a subdural hematoma is a collection of blood “between the covering of the brain (dura) and the surface of the brain,” according to MedlinePlus.
  • Trans. Refers to something that is across or through. For example, a person who is transgender has adopted a new gender identity.
  • Ultra. Refers to something that is in excess or beyond. For example, ultrasonic refers to sound waves that cannot be heard by the human ear.\

Sources:Healthline, “Hemiplegia: Causes and Treatments for Partial Paralysis”Mayo Clinic, High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)Medline Plus, Appendix A: Word Parts and What They MeanMedline Plus, Subdural HematomaSuperfood Science, “What Are Microphages?”

Medical Terminology Information Study and Resource Guides

 The above information can provide a strong start to those who want to learn about medical terms. For those who want to explore medical terminology further, the following resources can be beneficial.

Medscape. Medscape is an online resource for physicians looking to find helpful content ranging from the latest health news to more specific information about conditions and developments.

Prognosis. Prognosis: Your Diagnosis is a mobile app that can help physicians discover information, make evaluations based on simulations and learn from other medical experts.

Learn Medical Terminology. The Learn Medical Terminology app offers a convenient way for health enthusiasts to learn about medical prefixes, suffixes and terms on their smartphones.

Medical Dictionary by Farlex. This app provides smartphone users with helpful visuals and thousands of definitions for key medical terms.