Medical Assistant Terminology to Know

A medical assistant is someone who usually works in a doctor's office or clinic, assisting a physician with basic medical tasks. Medical assistants can do things like take vital signs and record patient symptoms as well as help with administrative tasks like billing and scheduling. 

Because they spend their time working with physicians and dealing with medical needs, medical assistants need to have a good understanding of medical terminology. 

This guide will review some common medical terminology you may need to know to be successful in your medical assisting career. 

List of Medical Assistant Terminology

If you work in healthcare, you must have a good understanding of the vocabulary that will be used around your workplace. You need to know what the physician is asking for or what to say to insurance companies. 

You also might need to help patients understand by “translating” some of the medical terminology for them. 

Sometimes, working in medicine can feel like you are learning another language. Although there are a lot of words to learn, don’t worry. Having an understanding of the basics will help you get started, and you can continue to learn as you get more experience. 

Common Root Words

  • Cephal – Pertaining to the head
  • Derm Pertaining to the skin
  • Myo Pertaining to the muscle
  • Osteo – Pertaining to the bone
  • Pulmo – Pertaining to the lung 
  • Cardio – Pertaining to the heart
  • Thermo – Indicates temperature 
  • Arterio – Pertaining to an artery 
  • Carcino – Cancerous 
  • Encephalo – Pertaining to the brain 
  • Gastro – Pertaining to the stomach 

Common Prefixes to Know

  • Ante – Before
  • Endo – Within 
  • Peri – During 
  • Post – After 
  • Trans – Across
  • Supra – Above
  • Macro – Large 
  • Micro – Small
  • Pseudo – False or fake

Common Suffixes to Know

  • uira – The presence of something in the urine
  • sclerosis – Hardening 
  • emia – Blood or referring to a substance in the blood
  • desis – Binding together or fixation 
  • algia – Pain or discomfort 
  • ology – The study of something 
  • lysis – Breaking down or destroying 
  • Itis – Inflammation 
  • plasty – Surgically repaired

Anatomical Position Terminology

  • Lateral – To one side
  • Medial – Nearer to the center 
  • Anterior – Refers to the front of the body
  • Posterior – Refers to the back of the body
  • Supine – Describes laying on the back
  • Prone – Describes laying on the stomach 
  • Proximal – Describes something near
  • Distal – Describes something further away
  • Inferior – Describes something lower than 
  • Superior – Describes something higher than
  • Superficial – Describes something near the surface of the skin

Common Types of Medicine

  • Psychiatry – A field of medicine where patients can get mental health treatment and medication. 
  • Psychology – Primarily uses talk therapy. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication. 
  • Cardiology – Medical care for the heart.
  • Orthopedics – Medical care for bones and joints. 
  • Neurology – Medical treatment for the brain and nerves. 
  • Ophthalmology – Treatment for the eyes and vision disorders. 
  • Pediatrics – Medicine focused on treating children and adolescents.
  • Oncology – Medical treatment for cancers. 

Common Diseases to Know as a Medical Assistant

  • Hypertension – High blood pressure, usually higher than 120/80. 
  • Heart failure – When the heart cannot function and push blood around the body. 
  • Cancer – An overgrowth of cells somewhere in the body. 
  • Migraines – Severe headaches, often made worse by loud noise or bright light. 
  • Diabetes – A disease where the body either does not make insulin or insulin doesn’t work well. It is difficult to keep blood sugars in normal ranges with diabetes.
  • Kidney failure – The kidneys cannot filter out toxins from the body, they may eventually stop making urine. May lead to the need for dialysis.  
  • Chronic pain – Pain that has lasted longer than 6 months and is not well controlled. 
  • Vision loss – Worsening vision requiring glasses. May be caused by normal aging, cataracts, and other diseases. 
  • Pneumonia – A disease in the lungs caused by viruses or bacteria. 

Body Membrane Terminology

  • Mucous membranes – Covers the mouth and digestive system. 
  • Serous membranes – Membranes that line the lungs, the abdominal organs, and the heart. 
  • Synovial membranes – These surround the cavities of joints and allow bones to move without friction. 
  • Cutaneous membranes – Skin. The driest membrane and the only one always exposed to air. 

Laboratory Terminology

  • Cultures – Look for bacterial infections.
  • Urinalysis – Looks for abnormalities in urine such as glucose, blood, or infection. 
  • CBC – Complete blood count. This checks levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. 
  • Basic metabolic panel – Used to measure electrolyte levels in the blood such as potassium, magnesium, sodium, and chloride. 
  • Renal Function panel – Looks for specific electrolytes and proteins related to the kidney function. 
  • Troponin – A lab test that indicates heart muscle damage if you have a heart attack. 
  • Reproductive hormone – Checks levels of estrogen and testosterone in the blood. 

What Medical Instruments are Called

  • Stethoscope – A tool used to listen to the heart, lungs, and stomach. Also used to take a manual blood pressure reading. 
  • Sphygmomanometer – Also known as a blood pressure cuff. 
  • Otoscope – A tool used to look inside a patient's ear. 
  • Glucometer – A tool that can give a blood sugar measurement with just a small drop of blood. 
  • Catheter – A hollow tube inserted into the body. For example, an intravenous catheter in a vein or a urinary catheter in the urethra. 
  • Syringe – A tool used to draw up liquids and measure them. Can be as small as 1 ml or as large as 60 ml. 
  • Sutures – Also known as stitches. Strong thread used to sew a wound closed. 
  • Butterfly needle – A small needle used to draw a blood sample.
  • Vacutainer – A tool used to collect blood from the butterfly needle to be sent to the laboratory. 
  • Defibrillator – A machine used to deliver a shock to the heart during CPR. 
  • Ultrasound – Allows a provider to see internal structures and organs such as the heart, kidneys, or uterus. 

Insurance & Billing Terminology

  •  HSA – Health savings account. Money set aside for medical purposes.
  • Coverage – Expenses covered by an insurance plan.
  • Co-payment – The amount of money for which a patient is responsible to pay. 
  • Deductible – The amount of money a patient must pay before insurance will start to cover expenses. 
  • Out-of-pocket costs – Costs that aren’t covered by insurance that the patient has to pay for.
  • ACO – Accountable Care Organizations. Groups of medical providers that voluntarily care for Medicare patients
  • POS – Point of service. These insurance plans allow patients to see providers within their network and use other services outside of their network. 
  • HMO – Health Maintenance Organizations. These are coverage plans that only allow a patient to see a specialist if they have been referred by a physician. 
  • PPO – Preferred Provider Organization. These plans allow patients to see a specialist without a referral or prior authorization. 
  • MAR – Medication Administration Record. Used by hospitals to keep track of what medications are given and when. 

Other Vocabulary That’s Important to Know as a Medical Assistant

  • PPE – Personal protective equipment. This includes gloves, masks, goggles, and gowns. 
  • Stat – This means that something needs to be done right away. 
  • BMI – Body mass index. A measurement of height and weight to determine if someone is within a healthy range. 
  • Arrhythmia – An abnormal heart rhythm
  • CPR – Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Helping someone’s heart beat until you can get it started on its own again. 

Tips for Learning Medical Assistant Terminology

Learn the basics

If you learn the root words, prefixes, and suffixes, you’ll be able to understand most medical terminology. Most medical vocabulary is just a combination of root words. When you have a good foundation, you should be able to figure the rest out more easily. 

Study up

Study in a way that works best for you. Visual learners might do well with flash cards. If you learn best by listening, you can look up YouTube videos or listen to audiobooks. 

Look up how the words are used in practice

Usually, the words will stay in your mind better if you can relate them to a real-life experience. If there is one particular word or phrase that you are struggling with, try to find a patient story or memorable experience using that word. 

Read medical news every day

Just like learning any language, the more you are exposed to the vocabulary, the easier it gets. Reading medical journals or articles not only helps you stay up-to-date on the best practices and newest technologies, it helps you practice terminology. 

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