Decoding your doctor’s appointment: A guide to medical words

High Angle View Of Stethoscope On Colored Background

Do you find it challenging to understand everything your health care providers tell you? If so, you aren’t alone. Only 12% of U.S. adults are proficient in health literacy, or the ability to process health information and take action to live a healthier life.

It’s a disconnect that happens for lots of reasons, from different communication styles to language barriers to limited time to spend at the provider’s office. While health literacy is a set of skills that must be built over a lifetime, a good first step is knowing how to break down medical words.

The National Library of Medicine is a great place to start, and in particular, Bookmark their appendix to look up medical words, and explore the steps below for quick tips you can use as needed.

5 steps for deconstructing medical words

1. Break them down

Did you ever diagram a sentence in school? You can apply the same method to medical words.

Try to identify the:

  • Prefix, or beginning, which may indicate shape, color, direction or amount
  • Root, or middle, which often specifies a body part
  • Suffix, or end, which may describe a test, problem or give other details

Example: Pericarditis

Prefix Root Suffix
peri = around card = heart itis = inflammation


So pericarditis is the irritation of tissue surrounding your heart.

As with most words in the English language, there are exceptions, but this method should give you some context clues to start from.

2. Know your roots 

Word roots are the key to understanding many medical terms.

The good news: You don’t have to memorize these! Just identify where you can go to decode them.

Root Meaning
angi blood vessels
aort aorta
arteri arteries
brachi arm
cardi heart
carp wrist
colo large intestine
crani skull
dento / odont teeth
derm skin
dorsa back
enceph brain
gastro stomach
hem / sangu blood
hepat liver
lingo tongue
mamm(o) breast
myo muscle
neph kidney
neuro nerves
optho / oculo eye
oto ear
osteo bone
pneumo / pleuro lung
pod / ped foot
rhino nose
thorac chest
thromb(o) blood clot
tympan / myringo eardrum
vas(c) / ven / phlebo veins


3. Fill in the blanks

When it comes to medical words, prefixes and suffixes will typically give you more information about a condition, disease or procedure, or give you more details about the size, speed or location of an issue.

Example: Hepatitis

Root Suffix
hepat = liver itis = inflammation


So hepatitis indicates an inflammation of the liver.

Common prefixes and suffixes include:

Prefix or suffix Meaning
macro very large
megalo large
micro small
hyper above normal
hypo below normal
tachy fast
brady slow
peri around
trans across
endo inside
inter between
echo using ultrasonic waves
ectomy removal of
electro using electricity
gram / graph picture
otomy making a cut in
scopy using a scope to view
stomy creating an opening
dys not working correctly
emia blood condition
itis inflammation
mal bad
osis / pathy condition / disease
ology / ologist study of a body part / person who studies a body part or disease
iatry / iatrist medical treatment / person providing that treatment


4. Identify abbreviations

Healthcare providers also use abbreviations to avoid writing out long medical words over and over again.

Often, these are acronyms (the first letters of several words) as in Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). However, these can also be letters that represent a word which may or may not contain those exact letters.

Electrocardiogram is a good example. This test (which measures the heart’s electrical waves), is abbreviated EKG despite the fact that, logically, it would be ECG.

The reason:

  • There’s already a test that’s abbreviated EEG (electroencephalogram)
  • If a doctor wrote down EEG in a hurry, it could look like ECG
  • So they changed the abbreviation to EKG.

Is that confusing? Absolutely! And it’s a good example of why the best way to decode medical abbreviations is to bookmark a page you trust and consult it as needed.

5. Ask questions

While this article aims to give you tools you can use to break down medical words on your own, the best way to ensure you understand what’s going on is to ask questions.

Next time you visit or talk with your provider, check in with how you feel:

  • Do you feel intimidated or judged?
  • Does your provider understand your needs?
  • Are you afraid to tell your provider the truth?
  • Can you communicate clearly and easily?

If you don’t like the answers to any of those questions, feel free to look for a new provider or ask your provider if they can make some changes to the way they communicate. If you’re a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee member, you can find one using the company’s Find Care app, which offers tools to help BCBST members find a provider, including a BlueCross Performance Rating to help identify high-performing PCPs.

It’s common for people to look around for a barber, mechanic, babysitter or other service provider, and in reality, health care is the most personal — and important — service we use. So taking the time to find the right provider for you that you trust makes a huge difference.

            5 questions to ask your doctor at your next physical

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).