A Guide to Medical Terminology for Medical Administrative Assistants

  • Medical Administrative Assistant
  • March 12, 2024
  • 6 min read
A Guide to Medical Terminology for Medical Administrative Assistants

Are you considering a career in medical administration but intimidated because you’ve never worked in healthcare before? Although there is a lot to learn before you can expect success in a new industry like healthcare, you can find a pathway to success in this career path with the proper education and training. 

One of the critical areas you will need to learn about to succeed in the healthcare industry is medical terminology. If you’ve watched a medical show on TV, you know there is a lot of jargon and specialized terminology involved. To succeed as a medical administrative assistant, you must master medical terminology. 

Once you do, you can break down complex terms you may not have heard before into their basic parts and use your critical thinking skills to interpret what others say to you in the office.

1. Getting to Know Prefixes and Suffixes

If you have never practiced breaking words apart into their component parts, it can be intimidating. Once you get the hang of it, though, it can become much more manageable, even with words you have never seen before.

Almost all medical terminology can be broken up into smaller components. These building blocks were used to invent the modern English words for most anatomical, diagnostic, and procedural terms. As you learn more about medical terminology, you will learn that each word holds clues, allowing you to build up your library of root words.

The most essential word components are prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes are word components that come at the beginning of the word. A good example is “hema-“ within words such as “hematoma” or “hemangioma.” “Pre-“ itself is a prefix and is derived from a word meaning “before.”

Suffixes come at the end of the word. A good example is “-oma” within words such as “hemangioma” or “carcinoma.” “Suf-“ derives from a word meaning “subordinate,” and suffixes are functionally subordinate to the primary root word because they always come after them.

Most prefixes, root words, and suffixes come from Greek or Latin, so once you learn the meaning of a component (e.g., knowing “hemp-“ refers to blood), you can apply that knowledge to numerous other words. Pretty cool!

2. Recognizing Body System and Procedure Terms

Now that you understand the basic premise of prefixes and suffixes, it is crucial to understand that the various body systems have unique names used to identify them in medical terminology. 

For example, the term “cardio-” refers to the heart, while “derm” relates to the skin. For example, a “cardiologist” is a heart doctor, and a “dermatologist” is a skin doctor. Notice that “-biologist” is a suffix shared by both words, meaning a “doctor” or “practitioner.”

Once you can identify the various terms that relate to the major body systems, you will be much more prepared to connect the dots between various medical conditions you will hear about in medical offices and the part of the body they affect.

3. Grasping Diagnostic Tests and Procedures

Similar to how specific body systems are referred to with a particular root word, specific procedures or tests are also referred to with particular root words. For example, “endoscopy” refers to using a tiny camera to view internal organs, whereas “colonoscopy” refers to the same procedure but specifically in the colon. 

Knowing the various categories of procedures helps you schedule appointments and understand the doctor’s notes more effectively, even if you change specialties or refer a patient to a different office.

4. Learning Common Medical Abbreviations

In addition to knowing medical terms, you must know medical abbreviations to be an effective medical administrative assistant. It seems there are abbreviations for practically everything in healthcare. For example, “CXR” means chest X-ray, and “NPO” means nothing by mouth.

Unlike medical terminology, which can often be analyzed and understood without previous knowledge of the word, medical abbreviations are more like secret codes. It is typically tricky to guess the meaning of an abbreviation without prior knowledge of the term. However, learning these abbreviations saves time (which is why providers use them) and makes reading medical records a breeze.

The most significant risk associated with abbreviations is that they are not commonly understood, especially by people new to the industry. Many abbreviations can appear similar to others while meaning very different things. 

Accurate use and understanding of abbreviations are crucial, especially when writing and filling prescriptions, so don’t be shy to ask or double-check what an abbreviation means. Your patient’s life could depend on it.

5. Understanding Medications and Dosages

As mentioned above, one of the most prominent applications of medical abbreviations is prescription writing. Have you ever seen something on a prescription bottle that looks like this? “Take 1 tab PO BID.” If that seems confusing to you, you’re not alone. “PO” means by mouth, “tab” means tablet, and “BID” indicates twice a day.

It is the primary job of healthcare providers, such as physicians, to write or direct the writing of prescriptions. Clinical medical assistants are often the ones who transcribe the prescription into the EHR or onto a physical prescription pad for the provider to sign. Pharmacy technicians are typically the ones who receive the prescription at a pharmacy, fill it, and then present it to the pharmacist to ensure it was processed correctly.

Although medical administrative assistants are not primarily responsible for this workflow, it is not out of the ordinary that they may get involved by calling in the prescription to a pharmacy or being asked to provide information to a patient who has lost their prescription. Therefore, all healthcare workers who directly interact with patients must have at least a basic understanding of these abbreviations.

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Becoming fluent in medical terminology might feel like learning a new language, but it’s not as complicated as you think! It can even be fun!

Focus on the basics. The first step in learning medical terminology is to recognize word parts so you can dissect new medical terms. Then, learn about the root words associated with body systems and diagnostic tests or procedures so that you can pair them with prefixes and suffixes. Finally, expand your knowledge by studying abbreviations. Pay close attention to those abbreviations related to medications.

Armed with these basics, you’re well on your way to navigating medical terminology with ease!

Corey Del Pino
Dean Of Clinical Programs

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Corey Del Pino attended Northern Arizona University after high school and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a Chemistry Minor in 2012. After attending Mohave Community College and earning her Medical…Read Full Bio

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