If you’re a new medical writer, you may wonder which skills are essential for success. Whether you choose to write regulatory documents, promotional content, patient education materials, or journal articles, you’ll need a strong writing foundation. Part of that foundation includes learning to understand, write, speak—in general, to communicate!—using the jargon of the field: medical terminology.
Why You Should Learn Medical Terminology
Learning medical terminology is essential to navigating the world of medical communication. In each of the four situations below, you’d rely on your knowledge of medical terminology to succeed in your job.
Deciphering source documents
It’s common for medical communicators to read medical journals and pharmaceutical documents. Unsurprisingly, these articles are often filled with highly technical medical jargon.
With a solid knowledge of medical terminology, you’ll be able to understand these documents immediately or decipher medical terms on the basis of their derivation.
Writing for health care professionals
If you’re writing for a professional medical audience, you’ll be expected to use correct medical terminology.
When writing for the public, you’ll need to translate medical terminology to make it easily understood by patients and their family members. At other times, it’s advisable to explicitly define medical terms so that readers can accurately and specifically describe their experiences and symptoms to their physicians.
For an editor, it’s important to stay up-to-date on medical terminology and to be familiar with the American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style, the standard in medical publishing. Make a habit of checking a medical dictionary regularly if there’s a term you don’t understand immediately. This will help you avoid inadvertently introducing errors or neglecting to correct common medical style mistakes.
Communicating with other professionals
As a medical writer, you will often interview subject matter experts, communicate with potential supervisors or clients, or speak with colleagues about medical communication projects. Having a solid grasp of medical terminology will help you understand what people are talking about. It will also help you present yourself as a valuable professional who can communicate accurately and competently—even about complex or highly technical subjects.
The Basic Components of Medical Terms
Pick up a medical dictionary and you’ll immediately understand the vastness of medical terminology. As science and health care continue to advance, the dictionaries keep growing.
A career as a medical writer requires a steady commitment to learning. You’ll need to continually refresh your knowledge of medical terminology and stay on top of the latest technical language in your niche. But no matter how many new medical terms are added each year, the three basic elements remain the same: prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms (word roots followed by vowels).
Prefixes are added before the main part of a word to provide additional meaning. Some prefixes in medical terminology will be familiar from other parts of life. For instance, pre- means “before,” while micro- means “small.”
Here are a few more prefixes commonly found in medical terminology:
- nano-: one billionth, very small
- peri-: around
- supra-: above
Suffixes are placed after the main part of a word to provide additional information. Think about the word “anemia.” The suffix -emia refers to a blood condition. The word “anemia”, for instance, is a combination of an- (meaning without) and -emia (referring to a blood condition). Anemia is a condition in which there is a lack of red blood cells in the body.
Here are a few common medical suffixes:
- -metry: measurement
- -plegia: paralysis
- -rrhea: discharge, excessive flow
In combining forms, a root word is followed by a vowel to aid in pronunciation. For instance, we say venipuncture (“puncture of a vein”), not venpuncture.
Here are a few examples of combining forms:
- adip/o: fat
- lapar/o: loins, abdomen
- ven/i or ven/o: vein
If you’re well disciplined, you can study medical terminology using textbooks, websites, and a variety of AMWA resources. Once you’ve mastered the basics, schedule time to regularly review new and updated terminology. Mastering medical terms is critical to becoming a successful medical writer.