'Hypo'-thetically Speaking

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Harvard Medical School
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'Hypo'-thetically Speaking

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Last reviewed February 27, 2013

It is likely that your doctor routinely uses words or phrases when speaking with other doctors that would sound foreign to you unless you have a medical background. Although it might sound like a jumble of long words and phrases, many of the terms have common roots, prefixes or suffixes. Knowing a few of these can go a long way in deciphering what may otherwise be incomprehensible "medicalese."

When Your Doctor Is Saying Less

Consider the following: hypothyroid, hypotension, hypocalcemia. The suffix "hypo-" in each of these words means "too little" of whatever follows. Consider "aplastic", "anovulatory" or "avascular." The "a" (or "an") that begins each of these means "lacking" whatever follows. So, these terms translate as follows:

  • Hypothyroid — an underactive thyroid gland
  • Hypotension — low blood pressure
  • Hypocalcemia — low blood calcium level
  • Aplastic — not developed or non-functioning, as in aplastic anemia
  • Anovulatory — not ovulating
  • Avascular — without a blood supply

Why It Matters

It is important that you understand your health care professional for several reasons: to know why you have symptoms, to know how to take your medicines and why they were prescribed, and to know what to expect. That means you both must use the same language, whether it is medical and technical, or the language of the layperson. I favor the latter — that is, I believe it is usually best if a doctor speaks the language of the patient rather than the other way around.

Invariably, however, medical terms will appear in written reports, communication between doctors, and often in the explanations doctors give to patients. If the information is not understood, it makes the worry over one's health even greater. Anything you or your doctor can do to reduce that worry is worth the effort. Your doctor can use language that you understand. And you can learn a bit of your doctor's language.

The Bottom Line

Some words are the same in more than one language. For example, "carton" is the same in English as in Spanish. Unfortunately, that seems to occur rarely in "medicalese." So learn what you can about your medical conditions and the terms that describe it; if you do not understand something your doctor has said, ask for a clarification. Many people assume the worst when they hear a term they don't understand, and there are already plenty of things to worry about without that caused by an ill-chosen phrase.

There is almost always a perfectly acceptable "translation" that can inform you without losing any of the term's meaning. Insist on that translation if you don't understand; but just in case, learn what you can of the medical lingo that applies to your health or to the health of those who are close to you.

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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Last updated February 27, 2013

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