Mastering Medical Assisting Terminology - A Brief Guide

Learning and using medical assisting terminology is one of the most important skills you'll need on the job. Your future career can hinge on it - get a kick start with this quick guide!

When you become a medical assistant, you'll have to learn the language of medicine to be able to perform your job properly. From taking dictation to taking histories from patients, you'll have to know the difference between an appendix and an Adam's apple.

The certification for medical assisting has an entire section of the exam devoted to medical terminology!

You'd be lost if you weren't able to pick up what your doctor was telling you, what your patients were complaining of, or what you need to order from the pharmacy.

Learning how to speak medicine is one of the most important things you'll do in medical assisting school, and a few tricks can break it down into easy chunks for you...


Structure of medical assisting terminology

Medical assisting terminology doesn't have to be difficult

Medical terminology is actually pretty easy if you break words down into their component parts.

Words consist of prefixes that come before roots, suffixes that come after roots, and root words that the prefixes and suffixes are added to.

Prefixes, suffixes, and root words in medical assisting terminology are either from a Latin or Greek origin.

However, once you learn the meaning of these magical words, you can put them together like puzzle pieces and figure out what an unfamiliar word means just by looking at its structure.

Example: the prefix "ante-" means "before." When you see this prefix in the word antepartum, you can look that up and know that it means before childbirth.

What about the term antebrachial?

Well, you know that it is before something, so that gives you a clue. If you know that Latin root word "brachial" means "arm," you would know it means before the arm – or essentially the forearm.

Learning these three building blocks and what they mean can get you a long way towards mastering medical assisting terminology.


Surgical procedures

Surgeons operating

Surgical procedures follow the prefix, suffix, root word rules, too.

Most of the time you'll see the suffixes "-ectomy" (which means to remove), and "-ostomy" (which means to make a hole or passageway).

So, an appendectomy means to remove the appendix. An ileostomy means to make a passageway from the ileum, which is a part of the small intestine, to the surface of the skin.

Surgical procedures often include the anatomical name of the body part, so it's important to memorize the names of different body parts in your anatomy and physiology classes in medical assisting school.

You need to know the differences between the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum, and you need to know how to spell them to transcribe them correctly. Paying attention in class is the only way to know these root words.


Diagnostic procedures

You'll need to learn the names of different diagnostic and lab procedures, but not many of these follow the rules of medical terminology.

Usually the body part that is to be examined will follow the rules, but the procedure itself can be named just about anything.

For instance, a CT of the abdomen and pelvis is a computer assisted tomography of the stomach and pelvic area. This is where your anatomy and physiology will, again, come in handy.

You'll also encounter many procedures that end in the term "-oscopy." This is merely a suffix meaning that the doctor uses a camera or some other radiological procedures to see into the body. Arthroscopy, for instance, is using a small camera to see inside a diseased joint, such as the knee joint.


Medical specialties

You'll need to become familiar with the terminology of various medical specialties

Medical specialties are a special subset of medical assisting terminology. You'll have to learn the different prefixes for the different types of doctors who care for body systems.

Unfortunately there's not an easy way to do this. But sometimes the Latin root words can help you figure out just what the meaning of a particular specialty is.

For instance, a cardiologist takes care of the heart, because "cardio" is related to the heart as a root word. In the same way, "nephro" is related to the kidney, "gastro" is related to the stomach, and "ortho" is related to the bone.

You may run into ones that are confusing, such as a rheumatologist, which is a doctor who cares for patients that have arthritis and other conditions.

For these specialties, you'll need to learn the root words so that you know what type of doctor you're sending your patient to see.


Medical abbreviations

You'll have to memorise a lot of terminology!

Medical abbreviations are another area where memorization will have to come to your aid.

Sometimes you can make out what they mean, but on the whole, they're abbreviations based on Latin phrases. They're very difficult to figure out unless you know the Latin phrase they're based on.

For example, the abbreviation NPO, which means nothing by mouth, is actually an abbreviation for the Latin phrase "non per os."

You'll see doctors write "q" many times, which means "every."

QD is every day, q week is every week, and qhs, means every hour of sleep. That roughly translates to every night before bed.

You'll see a great deal of abbreviations for medical professionals, too. RNs are registered nurses, CNAs are certified nursing assistants, and HHAs are home health aides.

Many other abbreviations exist in the wide world of the hospital and the doctor's office, and you have to know the lingo to understand what people are talking about.


Using terminology properly

As a medical assistant, you'll not only be required to speak this terminology properly, but you'll have to write it, transcribe it, and explain it to patients.

It's important for you to understand the words that medical professionals use so you can spell them correctly when you take dictation, and use them appropriately when speaking with other medical professionals.

You need to appear professional and knowledgeable when speaking to doctors, nurses, and patients, so understanding medical assisting terminology is one of the most important things you'll learn in your journey through medical assisting school.

You are the one that handles the paperwork that records most of this medical terminology, and you have to make sense of it for the patient. Sometimes, you just have to memorize it, but in some cases, you can find little tricks to get by.


For more help with medical assisting terminology, see our more complete guide to basic medical terminology, which has tables of common prefixes and suffixes.




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