Last reviewed and revised February 27, 2013
Somehow, I never thought to question the assumption that knowing Latin would help me understand medical terms I would need to learn in medical school. So when I got to college, I abandoned the Spanish I'd taken for two years in high school and signed up for Latin.
In fact, while many medical terms have their roots in Greek or Latin, I'd have been much better off continuing with Spanish or learning Russian, since the hospital where I trained and continue to work attracts a large number of people who speak those languages. But there I was, trying to memorize a language I would never actually speak so that I could be readily fluent by the time I got to medical school — a misguided approach to say the least! You don't need to go to such lengths — read on to learn some of the Latin terms doctors use every day when writing prescriptions.
Never mind the handwriting; even if you could read it, the terms that appear on most prescriptions are probably incomprehensible. A tradition has developed about how to specify the dose of a medication, whether to take it by mouth or in some other way, how often it should be taken, and other details. In a way, it's like writing a check — certain information goes in certain places in a format that is unlike your usual way of writing. Here's what a prescription looks like. To decipher it, see the numbers below that link to the labels on the prescription.
To understand the entries for each of these, some translation and explanation are necessary:
Perhaps prescriptions are written this way because it carries on a tradition that organizes information in a standard way that pharmacists and other health care professionals will understand. But there are so many ways for it to go wrong (and so often it does go wrong) that the case could be made to require plain language instead of abbreviated Latin on medication orders.
It's easy to see how "Celexa" and "Celebrex", two drugs that were approved around the same time, could be mistaken if written or read quickly; how "i tid" could be mistaken for "i bid"; or how "i qid" and "i qd" could be confused. Computer programs that "translate" into more understandable language and a requirement that all information is printed using both brand and generic drug names are other suggestions that might make the prescriptions you get from your doctor easier to understand.
Using our hospital's computer system, when I type "ii po qid", the prescription reads "2 by mouth 4 times daily." As time goes by, I'm amazed not only by how helpful a computerized prescription-entry system is but how unnecessary my struggles in Latin class were. The advantages to a computer-assisted prescription system go well beyond making the writing legible.
Now you know why the prescription you take to the pharmacist often reads like gibberish. Fortunately, the pharmacist is in on the "code" doctors use when they write prescriptions — and now you are, too.
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.