A Guide to Learning and Mastering Medical Terminology

Written by Brandon L.
January 25, 202411 min read

Are you struggling to decode the meaning of medical terminology or can't get your head around it?  You are not alone.  Learning medical terms is a complex but necessary step for all students pursuing nursing or other healthcare courses to master. 

You cannot skip this step even if you want to.  Medical terminology or jargon is a vital language of medicine that ensures smooth communication among healthcare professionals and promotes patient safety. 

While learning and memorizing medical terms can be challenging, doing so will pay off greatly.

In this article, we define why medical terms are and how to master them

Definition of Medical Terminology

Medical terminology refers to the language used to describe the human anatomy and all its components, processes, conditions, and treatments.  Learning these terminologies and their meaning is critical for students pursuing a career in nursing.  This is because nurses are trained in different institutions and work across different healthcare environments; having a language everyone can understand is crucial.  This is because it reduces miscommunication and ensures effective healthcare delivery to every patient.

The key to grasping essential medical terms for nursing students is targeting each of its components:

Prefix- this appears at the beginning of a term.  Usually, it indicates location, direction, type, quality, number, or negation (absence of).  For instance, the pre in prenatal is a prefix signifying before.  It is placed at the beginning of a word to alter its meaning.  Because of this, it is essential to spell it correctly.

Please note that not all medical terms contain a prefix.

The following are common prefixes you will encounter:


Time or Speed


Function or Quality

The suffix appears at the end of a medical term and shows specialty, test, procedure, function, disorder, or status.

The following are common suffixes used in the medical field:

Tests and Procedures

Pathology or Function

Medical Specialty


Root is the most essential part of a medical term as it gives it meaning.  A medical term could contain one root, but it may have several in other cases.  For example, the sternocleidomastoid, a neck muscle, contains three roots; "stern - o - cleid - o - mastoid."

Please note that essential medical terms for nursing students can include vowels, if necessary, as linking words like the example above.

Most roots have been derived from Latin or Greek.  In other words, it is the body part of a term.  However, when the prefix is included, it modifies the meaning of the root.

In most cases, some words will contain only the root and the suffix.  In other cases, a root and a suffix will be added to form a root.  But two suffixes cannot create a word.

Medical terminology must have at least one root, but a prefix and suffix are unnecessary.

Consider the following medical word: pericarditis.  Peri is a prefix that translates to "surrounding." "Card," is a root that means "heart" and "itis," which translates to "inflammation."

The following are common roots you will encounter in nursing school and your career:

Understanding these word constructions and analyses will help you decode the meaning of complex medical terms.

When is Medical Terminology Used

Essential medical terms for nursing students are used in various contexts across hospitals and medical environments.  It is necessary for nursing students and surgeons, emergency room doctors, medical receptionists, health insurance agents, and other relevant healthcare technicians.  The following are the most common uses for medical terms:

Patient care Perhaps the most critical use for medical terms is during patient assessment, diagnoses, and treatment planning.  These terms help health professionals describe patients’ symptoms and medical conditions.

Medical billing-Billing specialists use medical terminology to ensure they communicate patients' conditions and treatments to insurance providers.  This ensures that patients are adequately billed according to their medical issues. 

Consultations and referrals- Doctors use medical terms to consult with other experts about patients' illnesses and refer them for adequate care.  They rely on these terms to communicate patient information and their requirements accurately.

Medical imaging- Radiologists and other medical imaging experts use medical terms to describe the outcomes of X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and other imaging studies.  They use this information to provide precise reporting and provide accurate recommendations.

Medical research- experts conducting medical research use medical terms to communicate with one another about their findings, thus contributing to global medical knowledge.

Prescriptions-physicians use medical terms to prescribe medications and calculate accurate dosage depending on the patient's age and severity of illness.

Healthcare technicians working in health information systems rely on medical terms for data input and retrieval. 

Importance of Essential Medical Terms for Nursing Students

The following are why nursing students need to understand crucial medical terms and their meanings.

Ensuring Clarity and Precision

Communicating with medical terminology eliminates ambiguity, ensuring healthcare technicians can use precise words to discuss patients' medical conditions and treatments.  Doing this provides clarity, thus preventing any serious repercussions for both patients and physicians.

Learning medical terms enhances nursing students' communication with healthcare professionals during clinical rotations.  This ensures collaboration and accurate documentation and also promotes patients' safety.

Promotes Efficiency

Understanding medical terminology ensures no errors in the medical environment, thus increasing patient safety.  For instance, if a doctor prescribes certain medications for a particular illness, but the nurse in charge doesn't understand a specific word or confuses it for another, it could put patients' lives at risk. 

Not only does successful communication contribute to patient safety, but it also makes it easier for them to participate in patient education.

Tips to Help You Understand Medical Terms

If you struggle to understand essential medical terms for nursing students, these tips can help.

Understand Each Component

The first step to understanding a medical term is breaking it into individual parts. 

As mentioned, a medical word consists of three parts: prefixes, roots, and suffixes, essential building blocks that will help you understand the term's meaning.

If you encounter long and complex words, break these terms down into smaller components and learn each part separately.  This will help you effectively learn and retain the medical terms.

Use Visual Aids 

You can learn best and master medical terms by associating a word with a particular image like a flash card, diagram, or chart.  Research shows that human brains are hardwired to learn more through visual aids.  Every time you try to remember a particular word, this will be a reminder.  The best way to ensure this success is by using a simple image or diagram to associate with a specific word.

In addition, podcasts can quickly help you master medical terms.  Since a lot is going on in nursing school, from keeping up with assignments to clinical rotations, podcasts can help you keep up with medical terminology.

Practice Regularly 

Practice indeed makes perfect.  Revising essential medical terms for nursing students is necessary.  It can help you understand the medical terms and increase your confidence about communicating using those terms during clinical rotations. 

This works so much because the brain creates neural pathways when presented with new information, according to Colorado State University.  When done correctly, this rewiring of the brain tricks it into believing that what you are studying is more exciting.  So, regularly doing this will help you master medical terminology.

Take Advantage of Group Study

If you find medical terminology hard to grasp, studying with other nursing students can increase your understanding. 

Group studies allow you to share ideas, thoughts, and challenges and collaborate with your group mates about medical terminology.

Research shows group studies help promote academic achievement.  Group studies will allow you to dig deeper into medical terminology, thus increasing your understanding.  So, even if you are struggling to understand these medical terms, there will be at least one person who can explain it better.

Use Flashcards

Flashcards are small cards where you write a word on one side and its corresponding meaning on the other.  These flashcards are an excellent way to learn and retain information. 

Flashcards are a powerful way to strengthen your understanding of medical terminology.  With these cards, you can focus on each part and its pronunciation, thus enhancing your knowledge.

There are various resources available; for instance, you could purchase medical terminology flashcards or use online flashcards to help promote the retention of medical terms.

Learn Greek and Latin Words  

Studies show that the knowledge of both Latin and Greek language can enhance your understanding and recollection of medical terminology.

Many essential medical terms for nursing students are derived from Latin and Greek languages, so learning these languages will improve your reading, writing, and pronunciation of medical words.

Other studies also show that those studying anatomy and related disciplines can learn better with a solid background in Latin and Greek languages.

Additionally, since some medical terms are long, pay attention to the Latin or Greek root, suffix, and prefix of the words.

Create Acronyms 

Acronyms are abbreviations created using the initials of words.  This can be the best way to learn and retain the information you read.  Since many medical terms are extended, creating an acronym can help you quickly.  Remember.

To create an acronym, take one letter of each medical term or group of words, then form a new word or phrase.  For instance, the following are common medical acronyms you should be aware of:

While these are examples of standard abbreviations, you can also create one for yourself.  You will need a little creativity and imagination to make a word you can memorize quickly.  However, it will be difficult to forget these terms once you do.

Use Digital Apps 

There are various digital apps about essential medical terms for students to improve efficiency and effectiveness, from anatomy and physiology to medical terminology and pharmacology.  These apps can streamline your learning process and ensure you do not forget these medical terms.

Medical Terminology apps are available for both Android and iOS devices.  You can comfortably use them anytime and anywhere.

Most apps have a function for each part of medical terminology or their abbreviations.  They also provided flashcards, quizzes, and interactive diagrams to help you master the terms.  Some examples of medical terminology apps include the Medical Terminology Dictionary, Medical Terms & Abbreviations, and Med Term Scramble.

Use Contextual Cues

This type of learning involves linking your material to real-life experiences.  Contextual learning can be a great way to master medical terminology. 

For instance, you can link medical terms related to specific body parts, diagnosis, location, specialty, etc.  This will act as hints or cues within a particular setting to help you decipher its meaning.

When you understand how these terms are used, memorizing and applying them in a clinical setting will be easier. 

Consider Your Learning Style 

Your learning habits will determine how well you absorb and process information.  Identifying your learning style can help you take advantage of learning approaches that work best for you, for instance, taking notes while studying, using models, or creating mind models.

There are various learning styles, but the most common are the VARK model, Visual, Auditory, Read/write, and Kinesthetic learning styles.


Visual learners learn best through:


These learners process information best from:


These learners benefit from:


These learners process information best by using the following:

Consider which activities work well for you and leverage them to your advantage.  Doing this will help you master essential medical terms for nursing students.

Look for Clinical Opportunities 

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), hands-on experience is an invaluable resource for nursing students. 

Working in a clinical setting provides opportunities for applying what you have learned in class.  By engaging with patients, doctors, and other healthcare workers, you can witness how the medical terms are used in real life.  This exposure will strengthen your comprehension of the terms and how to relate them to patient care.

Additionally, healthcare workers who are well-versed in medical terminologies can provide insights and explanations of how these terms are used in healthcare practice. 

Interacting, conversing, and observing them will deepen your understanding of the terms and their significance in healthcare.

Learn the Stages of the Physiological System

The physiological system is your body's subsystems, i.e., skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, excretory, respiratory, circulatory, metabolic, etc.

Following this structure will allow you to connect the medical terms and related body parts.  For instance, cardiovascular is associated with hearts and blood vessels. 

With this in mind, you can better understand and make connections between the conditions and procedures related to the system. 

Furthermore, you will give a logical structure for organizing and categorizing medical terms accordingly.  For instance, illnesses affecting the respiratory system, such as pneumonia, can be grouped, thus facilitating your understanding and recollection.

Learn Faster with Free Online Classes

You may wonder why this is possible, especially because you are already in nursing school.  However, taking online medical terminology classes from the tons available for free is a great way to supplement your knowledge.

Some good examples of online classes include:

Understanding Medical Words" (supported by the National Library of Medicine): This course defines common medical terms and acronyms.  What's more, medical terms are broken down into Greek and Latin roots.  They also provided great examples with visuals to help you better understand them.

Explanatory text is very light and easy to digest.

Medical Terminology” (by SweetHaven Publishing Services): all the lessons in this course are presented in Flashcards format.  You can complete this course at any time and at your own pace.

Final Word 

Learning essential medical terms for nursing students is not a walk into the park.  While these terms are essential in caring for patients and ensuring efficiency in a clinical setting, they are tough to master.  As a nursing student, you just invest time and effort to ensure you understand all these terms' definitions and pronunciations.  Following the above steps, you will know and understand what a word means and how to apply it in practice.

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