Sunday, September 06, 2009

Understanding Medical Terms, Lingo, and Abbreviations

Medspeak, Medical Lingo . . . Need Help in Understanding the Language of the Medical World?

Right now I'm going through a stack of patient information brochures that I've been holding on to for awhile. A standout brochure in my collection is called, "Deciphering Medspeak," published by the Medical Library Association (MLA). This publication provides a quick A-to-Z plain-language guide which helps explain the meanings behind common medical terms and abbreviations.

In addition to the original version of Deciphering Medspeak, the plain language (low literacy) version (pdf) is also available online along with French and Spanish versions: Décryptage du Langage Médical and in Descifrando el Lenguaje Medico.

Other Resources with Medical Abbreviations and Terms:

This online medical dictionary can also help you find answers:  Medlineplus encyclopedia.

If you have ever wondered what the abbreviations on doctor's prescriptons mean, you'll find this to be a useful guide: RX Riddles Solved, A Prescription Shorthand Guide.

For Very Basic Explanations of Health Terms . . .
MLAnet's "plain-language brochures" are written for health consumers with a 5th grade or lower reading level. These publications are ideal for consumers struggling with limited health literacy.  Here is an example of the same health term definition from the original Deciphering Medspeak publication (1) and the plain-language version of the brochure (2):
  • (1) DIFFERENTIAL DIAGNOSIS - is a list of the different diseases that can cause these symptoms
  • (2) DIFFERENTIAL DIAGNOSIS - a list of diseases with symptoms that are alike. A fever and a runny nose are symptoms. The flu or the common cold are possible causes.
In case you were wondering . . . abbreviations for medical titles and degrees

"MPH" is my highest professional degree. It stands for "Master of Public Health" (not miles per hour, as one friend suggested.)  I earned my MPH from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.  The MPH program requires study in five specific areas important to public health: epidemiology, health education, biostatistics, environmental health, and health services management.  My MPH course also required completion of a thesis.  (Mine was a qualitative study of lost opportunities in umbilical cord blood banking.)  Often, you'll find individuals with an MPH degree working in health departments, for the CDC, or as key personnel in non-profit health organizations.  Physicians, dentists, veterinarians, attorneys, and nurses are among the professionals who pursue this degree.

D.O.":  In the U.S. we have two types of medical doctors, those with the M.D. behind their names and those with the less familiar "D.O." or Doctor of Osteopathy.  Both types of physicians receive the same basic medical education and pass similar licensing exams.  Osteopaths receive training that is holistic in nature--looking at the whole person rather than one aspect of an individual's symptoms.

"P.A.":  Physician's Assistant.  Many physicians employ P.A.s to serve as mid-level health providers.  P.A.s are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a licensed physician.  Their highest educational level is either at the bachelor or master's degree level.  In the clinical setting you'll find P.A.s treating and diagnosing illness, ordering lab tests, performing physical exams and even assisting in surgery.

"N.P.":  Nurse Practitioners are another type of mid-level health provider.  Like P.A.s, they work under the supervision of a licensed physcian.  In addition to a bachelor's degree in nursing, they hold a master's degree and licensure as an advanced practice nurse.  You'll find N.P.s providing individualized patient care, performing physicals, ordering lab tests, prescribing medications, etc. in physician's offices, clinics, and hospitals.

"BSN":  Bachelor of Science in Nursing.  This degree is earned by successful completion of a 4-year-university program.  However, the degree does not guarantee licensure as a registered nurse. All graduates are required to complete licensing exams before entering practice. (Personal Note: I earned my BSN from the University of El Paso at Texas.  This is my highest nursing degree, although I do have a master's degree in public health.)

"MSN": Master of Science in Nursing. After completing a bachelor's in nursing, the MSN degree is the next educational step towards career advancement for the registered nurse.  Nurses with the MSN may be teaching in nursing schools or practicing as certified nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, certified nurse anesthetists, or clinical nurse specialists.

"ADN":  Associate Degree Nurse.  This degree provides fundamental education for registered nurses.  Most RN's practicing today have either the ADN degree or the BSN degree which is a longer program. Most community colleges offer 2-3 year ADN programs in nursing which prepare the graduate for the role of registered nurse.  Graduates must successfully pass state licensure exams before entering practice.

"RN": Registered Nurse.  At one time, RN's were educated chiefly in hospital schools of nursing.  Instead of a degree, upon completion, they were awarded a diploma which entitled them to sit for the RN licensing exams.  Today there are still some "diploma" nurses in the workplace, but RN's are also educated in ADN and BSN programs (see above.)  In addition, advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners, midwives, and nurse anesthesists are RNs, but with an expanded scope of practice.  Licensing requirements may vary slightly by state, but the NCLEX exam is the standardized test required for licensure within the U.S..  Even though an individual may hold a degree or diploma in nursing, if they have never passed a licensing exam, or if they lose or surrender their license to practice, it is illegal for them to use the title of "RN."

"LPN or LVN":  Licensed Practical Nurse or Licensed Vocational Nurse.  LPN and LVN's practice basic nursing, often under the supervision of an RN.  I know of LPN programs that can be completed in as little as 9 months; however, at least one year of study is the norm.  Instruction may occur in a community college or vocational school.  An LPN (or LVN, depending on the state in which one lives) is educated in the basics of nursing care.  LPN/LVN's must pass state licensing exams before entering practice in this field.  You will ususally find LPNs working as nurses in doctor's offices, nursing homes, hospitals, and home health agencies. 

Not finding what you are looking for?  Leave me a comment and I'll soon get back with an answer for you.

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Jess Mcnamara said...

if you cannot understand or you are unfamiliar with an abbreviation used, what would you do?

Carolyn Cooper, MPH, RN said...

Hi, Jess,

Good question. I would certainly ask your health care provider what the abbreviation means. If it is in regard to a medication prescription, you can ask your pharmacist to clarify. When giving instructions to the patient, it's best to spell out any abbreviations that are not well-known, in general, to everyone.

I have to admit that occasionally I will still be stumped by a medical abbreviation (though I've been around a long time). There are standard lists of approved abbreviations in medical charting & practice that are supposed to be adhered to, but sometimes things slip through . . .

So, definitely, "ask" to get it clarified when you are unsure.

Jane Marsh said...

Thanks for sharing.