Medical Terminology is the Language of Medicine and Helps the EMT Communicate Effectively
Medical terminology forms the language of healthcare. It’s a universal form of communication among healthcare professionals including the EMT and Paramedic, allowing for precision and clarity. Precision and clarity are essential in safe health care delivery, and an important means of protecting yourself from legal trouble. This article aims to demystify medical terminology, covering the basics such as prefixes, roots and stems, and suffixes and providing effective memorization tools along the way. Stay tuned for more articles on this subject in our series on Medical Terminology for the Rescuer.
EMT’s will use medical terms throughout their job functions from reading through their protocols, discussing the call with their team members, and in written and verbal communications for the patient’s health care record and transferring care to the hospital. Using medical terms is practical as well. Carefully crafted word parts can signify big differences in meaning, and makes learning and communicating about complex medical concepts with fewer words than would be possible in lay person terminology. Take for example the term ‘acute myocardial infarct’. This is a condition that results in life threatening emergencies and cardiac arrest known to the layperson as a “heart attack”. Though not one single term like we will start learning, it shows how effective these terms can be. The term ‘acute myocardial infarct’, or “AMI” abbreviated, describes a precise condition in a particular part of the body in great detail. “acute” means sudden, “myocardial” means of the muscle layer of the heart, or heart muscle, and “infarct” means cell and tissue death. When the heart muscle is diseased but not yet dead, a different term describes the same condition in a slightly less severe condition, right before death. All with three words, pretty efficient.
Let’s start with single words as we learn to walk the talk of medical terminology, one step at a time.
Medical terms originate from a combination of latin and greek terminology as the ancient languages of medicine. Sometimes these terms are logical given the ancient terms from these languages that are in English today, others can be misleading. Often, on an exam, if you see a term that sounds like it would be a good description of a term, but you are sure you have never studied before, it might be a distractor made to sound better than the actual term, and might be wrong.
The basic structure of a medical term includes a root word in the center of the term, a prefix added at the front of the root word, and a suffix added to the end of a root word. Sometimes linking vowels are added as well. The graphic below shows the connection between the word parts.
The term bradycardia describes a slow heart rate, slower than the parameters set for that patients age. The prefix brady- means slow, card- is part of the root word cardio for heart, and the suffix -ia is a common suffix for a medical condition or state. One term encapsulates a slow heart rate.
Prefixes for EMT’s
In medical terminology, prefixes are terms at the start of a word to modify or qualify its meaning. For instance, the prefix ‘hyper-‘ means ‘over’ or ‘above,’ while ‘hypo-‘ signifies ‘under’ or ‘below.’ By understanding the meaning of various prefixes, you can often decipher the meaning of complex medical terms. Below are some common medical term prefixes:
- A-, An-: Without, lack of (e.g., Anemia – lack of blood)
- Ab-: Away from (e.g., Abnormal – away from normal)
- Ad-: Towards, increase (e.g., Adduction – movement towards the midline)
- Anti-: Against (e.g., Antiseptic – against infection)
- Auto-: Self (e.g., Autonomic – self-controlling)
- Bi-: Two (e.g., Bifurcate – divide into two branches)
- Brady-: Slow (e.g., Bradycardia – slow heart rate)
- Cardio-: Heart (e.g., Cardiogram – a record of heart activity)
- Circum-: Around (e.g., Circumference – the distance around)
- Contra-: Against, opposite (e.g., Contraindication – a reason something is not advisable or should not be done)
- Cyto-: Cell (e.g., Cytology – the study of cells)
- Derm-, Dermato-: Skin (e.g., Dermatitis – inflammation of the skin)
- Dys-: Difficult, painful, abnormal (e.g., Dyspnea – difficulty breathing)
- Epi-: Upon, over (e.g., Epidermis – outermost layer of skin)
- Hemi-: Half (e.g., Hemiplegia – paralysis of half the body)
- Hyper-: Excessive, above (e.g., Hypertension – high blood pressure)
- Hypo-: Under, below normal (e.g., Hypoglycemia – low blood sugar)
- Inter-: Between (e.g., Interstitial – between cells)
- Intra-: Within (e.g., Intracellular – within a cell)
- Macro-: Large (e.g., Macroscopic – large enough to be seen)
- Micro-: Small (e.g., Microscopic – too small to be seen with the naked eye)
- Mono-: One (e.g., Monocyte – a type of white blood cell)
- Neo-: New (e.g., Neonatal – new born)
- Para-: Beside, beyond (e.g., Paracardiac – located near the heart)
- Poly-: Many (e.g., Polycythemia – many cells in the blood)
- Post-: After (e.g., Postnatal – after birth)
- Pre-: Before (e.g., Prenatal – before birth)
- Retro-: Behind, backward (e.g., Retrograde – going backward)
- Sub-: Under, below (e.g., Subcutaneous – under the skin)
- Super-, Supra-: Above, excessive (e.g., Suprarenal – above the kidney)
- Tachy-: Fast (e.g., Tachycardia – fast heart rate)
- Trans-: Across, through (e.g., Transdermal – through the skin)
- Tri-: Three (e.g., Trigeminal – three branches)
Root Words for EMT’s
Root words form the basis of medical terminology. They typically indicate a body part or a specific organ. For example, ‘cardi-‘ pertains to the heart, while ‘neuro-‘ relates to the nerves or the nervous system (2). Below is a list of helpful root words for medical terminology for the EMT.
- Cardi-: Heart (e.g., Cardiovascular – pertaining to the heart and blood vessels)
- Cephal-: Head (e.g., Cephalic – pertaining to the head)
- Cerebr-: Brain (e.g., Cerebrovascular – pertaining to the blood vessels of the brain)
- Cyst-: Bladder or sac (e.g., Cystitis – inflammation of the bladder)
- Derm-: Skin (e.g., Dermatology – study of the skin)
- Gastr-: Stomach (e.g., Gastritis – inflammation of the stomach)
- Hemat-, Hemo-: Blood (e.g., Hematology – study of blood)
- Hepat-: Liver (e.g., Hepatitis – inflammation of the liver)
- My-, Myo-: Muscle (e.g., Myocardium – heart muscle)
- Neur-: Nerve (e.g., Neurology – study of the nerves)
- Oste-: Bone (e.g., Osteoporosis – a condition causing weak bones)
- Pneum-: Lung or air (e.g., Pneumonia – inflammation of the lungs)
- Psych-: Mind (e.g., Psychiatry – medical specialty dealing with the mind and mental illness)
- Ren-: Kidney (e.g., Renal – pertaining to the kidney)
- Rhino-: Nose (e.g., Rhinitis – inflammation of the nose)
- Splen-: Spleen (e.g., Splenomegaly – enlargement of the spleen)
- Thorac-: Chest (e.g., Thoracic – pertaining to the chest)
- Vas-: Vessel (e.g., Vascular – relating to blood vessels)
Suffixes for EMT’s
Suffixes in medical terminology are attached at the end of a word to modify its core meaning. For example, ‘-itis’ denotes inflammation, while ‘-ectomy’ indicates surgical removal. Understanding common suffixes can greatly help in making sense of medical language (3). Here is a list of helpful suffixes for EMT medical terminology.
- -algia: Pain (e.g., Neuralgia – nerve pain)
- -ectomy: Removal or excision (e.g., Appendectomy – removal of the appendix)
- -itis: Inflammation (e.g., Appendicitis – inflammation of the appendix)
- -osis: Condition, usually abnormal (e.g., Scoliosis – abnormal curvature of the spine)
- -pathy: Disease (e.g., Neuropathy – disease of the nerves)
- -plasty: Surgical repair (e.g., Rhinoplasty – surgical repair of the nose)
- -rrhage, -rrhagia: Bleeding, abnormal excessive fluid discharge (e.g., Hemorrhage – excessive bleeding)
- -rrhea: Flow, discharge (e.g., Diarrhea – abnormal fluid discharge from the bowel)
- -stasis: Stopping, controlling (e.g., Hemostasis – stopping the flow of blood)
- -centesis: Surgical puncture to remove fluid (e.g., Amniocentesis – removal of amniotic fluid)
- -gram: Record or picture (e.g., Electrocardiogram – a record of the electrical activity of the heart)
- -graphy: Process of recording (e.g., Radiography – process of recording x-rays)
- -logy: Study of (e.g., Cardiology – study of the heart)
- -phobia: Fear (e.g., Arachnophobia – fear of spiders)
- -scope: Instrument for viewing (e.g., Microscope – instrument for viewing small objects)
- -scopy: Visual examination (e.g., Endoscopy – visual examination of the interior of organs and cavities)
- -tomy: Incision, cutting into (e.g., Laparotomy – incision into the abdomen)
- -emia: Blood condition (e.g., Anemia – lack of a normal number of red blood cells)
- -oma: Tumor, mass, fluid collection (e.g., Carcinoma – a cancerous tumor)
- -megaly: Enlargement (e.g., Cardiomegaly – enlargement of the heart)
- -cyte: Cell (e.g., Leukocyte – white blood cell)
- -dynia: Pain (e.g., Gastrodynia – stomach pain)
- -lysis: Separation, breakdown, destruction (e.g., Hemolysis – destruction of red blood cells)
- -malacia: Softening (e.g., Chondromalacia – softening of cartilage)
- -penia: Decrease, deficiency (e.g., Leukopenia – deficiency of white blood cells)
- -stomy: Creating an opening (e.g., Colostomy – creating an opening in the colon)
- -trophy: Development, nourishment (e.g., Atrophy – lack of development, or wasting away)
Learning Medical Terminology
Medical terminology might seem overwhelming at first, but numerous memorization tools can assist you in mastering these terms. Regardless of the tool you use, make sure it fits your learning styles.
Take our learning style quiz to determine your VARK learning style and find tools to help master it.
- Medical Dictionaries: Using a medical dictionary, whether in print or online, is a practical way to understand and remember medical terms (4).
- Flashcards: Flashcards can be useful for memorizing medical terms. You can write the word on one side and its meaning on the other, making the learning process interactive and fun (5).
- Mnemonic Devices: Mnemonic devices are proven to remember complex information. They use techniques like visualization, association, and rhymes to make memorization easier (6).
- Online Courses and Apps: Several online courses and mobile apps can guide you through learning medical terminology. They often include interactive exercises and quizzes to test your knowledge (7).
Understanding medical terminology is essential for anyone involved in healthcare. By familiarizing yourself with prefixes, core terms, and suffixes and utilizing practical memorization tools, you can master the language of medicine.
- MedicineNet. (2022). “Medical Prefixes.” Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=6953
- GlobalRPh. (2023). “Medical Root Words.” Retrieved from https://globalrph.com/medterm/medical-root-words/
- GlobalRPh. (2023). “Medical Suffixes.” Retrieved from https://globalrph.com/medterm/medical-suffixes/
- MedlinePlus. (2021). “Medical Dictionary.” Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/mplusdictionary.html
- Brainscape. (2022). “Medical Terminology Flashcards.” Retrieved from https://www.brainscape.com/subjects/medical-terminology
- Memory Improvement Tips. (2022). “How to Use Mnemonic Devices.” Retrieved from https://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/mnemonic-devices.html
- Verywell Health. (2023). “Best Apps for Learning Medical Terminology.” Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/best-medical-terminology-apps-5095332