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Conquering Medical Terminology

It’s sometimes difficult to understand what your primary care doctor is trying to tell you, but they’re used to explaining. Some can tell by the look on your face you don’t get it, and immediately just give you a five second rundown of what the term they just used means. Even better, many primary physicians don’t hardly use medical terminology at all.

Your child’s pediatrician is similar, but what happens when you have more than just a pediatrician? Medical terminology is a massive hurdle to overcome. If you’re working with a specialist you’ve never seen before it’s especially overwhelming. First, here’s a list of things you can do to ease the pain when talking to a new specialist, or a familiar specialist about an unfamiliar problem.

  • Write down terms you don’t understand, even if you make no other notes. If it’s critical to understanding the conversation you’ll have to ask, but sometimes it’s not. If you write them down, you can change your mind and ask what it means or look up the definition when you get home.
  • If it’s something like a diagnosis, or a procedure you need to follow, repeat it back to the doctor and ask if you heard correctly. Usually you don’t get a yes or no answer from a specialist, but you can make a note of anything they add or explain further.

Some specialists are more difficult to understand than others. For me, the most difficult are pediatric neurology and ophthalmology (you’ll have an easier time with ophthalmology if you’ve seen one yourself, but I hadn’t). The words they use don’t tend to come up in regular conversation. Also, a lot of questions you ask a neurologist are answered with a confident, “I don’t know,” but with a lot more medical terminology and in a lot more words (possibly paragraphs worth of them). Based on my experience, I’ve included a list of specialists and what you will benefit from looking up ahead of the visit.

  1. Gastroenterology – You absolutely need to know the parts of the digestive system (esophagus, stomach, etc.). It’s nice to also have a basic understanding of what function each part performs in the digestive process.
  2. Neurology – You absolutely need to know the major parts of the brain and have a basic idea of their function. Don’t worry about the rest. It took me a little while just to find that straight forward page and I knew exactly what I was looking for. I highly recommend going to the first visit, finding out what the neurologist thinks is the concern, and then focusing any research in that area only.
  3. Ophthalmology or Optometry – Know what astigmatism means. Otherwise most people know the basics. The parts of the eye might be useful if you’re completely unfamiliar.
  4. Hematology – This specialty is as complex as neurology at times, but there’s a wonderful resource I found at http://www.hematology.org which gives an excellent rundown of the basics and information to those who want more.
  5. Cardiology – Know the major parts of the heart and be familiar with what the general shape looks like. It’s also nice to know the exact clinical term for why you’re being referred to cardiology. It will help guide them to take an extra close look in that area if they perform an echo.

The resources I provided are specifically selected to be limited and helpful to beginners. If you’re looking for something in one of these fields and can’t find it, leave me a comment and I’ll help find you the resource you need. If I haven’t included a specialty on the list it’s because I’m not familiar enough to be comfortable with recommending appropriate resources. I expect to add more as time goes on, because we’re still adding new specialists to my son’s care team.

Do the best you can, and that’s all you can do. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask questions. If the articles I linked are overwhelming, feel free to ask me for something more basic. If you wanted to learn these things you would’ve gone into the medical field. No one expects you to have any prior understanding of medical terminology. They simply use the terms because that’s the best way they know to communicate the exact message they’re trying to convey.

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