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Hallie Schauer guide to understanding healthcare language.

Decoding Medical Jargon: A Nurse's Guide to Common Terms

Decoding medical jargon can often feel like trying to read a foreign language. Understanding healthcare information is crucial for patients and their families to navigate treatment paths and make informed decisions. Enter the role of nurses, who provide care and comfort and act as translators between the medical world and the patients they serve. 


Among these dedicated professionals is Hallie Schauer in Sheridan, WY, an RN/PRN at Welch Cancer Center. Notably, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, she volunteered to work full-time in the COVID Testing Center, demonstrating her unwavering commitment to her community. She provides invaluable support in the Infusion Unit, bridging the gap between complex medical terminology and the patient's understanding.


This guide is inspired by healthcare professionals like Hallie, who go above and beyond in their duties. Here, we'll unravel some of the most common medical terms and abbreviations, translating them into plain language. We aim to empower patients and their loved ones with the knowledge they need to grasp their diagnoses and treatment plans better.


Understanding Basic Medical Abbreviations


  1. BP (Blood Pressure): This measures the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. It's noted as two numbers, with the top (systolic) measuring pressure during heartbeats and the bottom (diastolic) measuring pressure between beats.
  2. HR (Heart Rate): This is the number of times your heart beats per minute. A typical range for adults is 60-100 beats per minute.
  3. RPM (Respirations Per Minute): This counts how often you breathe in and out in a minute. A healthy adult's average rate is 12-16 breaths per minute.
  4. BMI (Body Mass Index): BMI is a number calculated from your weight and height that provides a reliable indicator of body fatness for most people and is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems.


Demystifying Treatment Terms


  • Chemotherapy (Chemo): A type of cancer treatment using drugs to kill cancer cells. It targets cells that grow and divide quickly, a characteristic of most cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: This treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Unlike chemotherapy, which can affect the entire body, radiation therapy targets a specific area.
  • Immunotherapy: This treatment uses certain parts of a person's immune system to fight diseases, including cancer. It can be done by stimulating one's immune system to work harder or smarter against cancer cells or adding components to the immune system.


Navigating Diagnostic Terms


  • Biopsy: A small sample of tissue that's taken to be examined under a microscope. This test helps diagnose various conditions, especially cancer.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): A machine that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body. Unlike X-rays and CT scans, MRIs do not use radiation.
  • CT Scan (Computed Tomography Scan): This imaging method uses X-rays and computer technology to make detailed pictures of the body. A CT scan can show details of the bones, muscles, fat, organs, and blood vessels.

Understanding Prescriptions and Medications


  • Generic vs. Brand Name: Medications typically have two names: a brand name, which the pharmaceutical company gives, and a generic name, which is the drug's active ingredient. Generic medicines are usually less expensive and can be substituted for brand-name drugs, as they are considered to be equally effective.
  • Dosage: This refers to the size or frequency of a dose of a medicine or drug. Understanding your prescribed dosage is critical to the effectiveness of the treatment and avoiding potential side effects.
  • PRN is an abbreviation for "pro re nata," meaning "as needed." This is often used in prescriptions to indicate that the medication should be taken only when necessary.


Final Thoughts


Understanding medical jargon can significantly impact how patients navigate their healthcare journeys. Professionals like Hallie Schauer exemplify nurses' crucial role in providing care and ensuring patients are informed, comfortable, and understood. This guide serves as a starting point for demystifying the complex language of healthcare, empowering patients and their families to take an active role in their healthcare decisions. With knowledge as a foundation, the path through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery becomes a shared journey, illuminated by the dedication of healthcare professionals and the informed engagement of patients.

Natalie Nyugen

Natalie Nyugen / About Author

Research analyst and contributor on Company InFocus. B.A. in International Marketing from Rutgers Business School.