HealthJuly 09, 2020

5 ways to use a medical dictionary

By: Heidi Moawad, MD

With all the medical school study resources you have at your disposal, don’t overlook a dictionary. Here are five smart ways to use a medical dictionary.

From anatomy atlases to drug reference manuals, you'll use a variety of medical school study resources as you prepare for exams and rotations. Each of these learning tools has its own role in your medical school education and beyond, and the same is true for your medical dictionary. But what is a medical dictionary, and how useful can one really be?

Of course, it's vital that you have a strong grasp of the details of subjects like physiology and pharmacology, but it can be hard to understand specifics without having a general introduction to these topics first. While it isn't necessarily the most exciting piece of medical literature you'll use, an accessible dictionary will come in handy during a number of situations.

5 ways to use a medical dictionary

The following are all great uses for a trusty medical dictionary.

1. Getting your feet wet

When starting a course in a new topic, you might not be familiar with much of the vocabulary. A medical dictionary can be your best friend as you're diving into new subject matter. In fact, you might find yourself using your medical dictionary multiple times per sentence! And don't be surprised if you end up looking up a term you encounter as part of the definition you searched for in the first place.

Learning medical information can be a slow process that requires building your knowledge step by tiny step. It takes patience. And you probably already know that guessing what a medical term means is almost never a good bet because so little is intuitive when you're first getting started.

2. Finding quick reminders

Another way your medical dictionary will come in handy is when something you already learned in the past has slipped your mind. You might understand the concepts but can't recall the exact name of a drug, disease or anatomical structure.

In fact, there are so many acronyms in medicine that it's common for students and doctors to remember the acronym but not the exact words it stands for.

At the same time, many physical structures and diseases have more than one name. You might have learned all the names at some point but then forgotten a few of them over time.

For one of the most trusted resources in healthcare, check out Stedman's Medical Dictionary.

3. Looking up medications

Your medical dictionary can also benefit you when it comes to looking up over-the-counter and prescription drugs. As you start to see patients during your rotations, you'll frequently hear a drug only called by its generic or brand name. You can use your medical dictionary to look up generic medications with a list of common brand names — or find brand name medications matched with their generic names. Some medical dictionaries also include drug classifications along with the drug names, which will help remind you of their mechanisms of action and indications.

A medical dictionary can be a less cumbersome tool than a pocket drug guide, especially if you don't need to calculate dosages. Of course, you'll eventually need that dosing guide for writing orders and prescriptions, and you'll also have to know the side effects and drug interactions, information that likely won't be found in your medical dictionary.

4. Comparing and contrasting

Confusing concepts will come up frequently in your medical studies, and you'll need to use a variety of medical school study resources as you untangle tricky material. Your medical dictionary is a great place to start because the definitions of similar terms often differ only slightly. You can examine these minor differences to pick apart the subtle nuances between terms that are similar but not identical.

For example, many students have a hard time distinguishing between hypoxia and hypoxemia. While an article in a journal like Medicine may dive into these concepts in detail, an in-depth resource like that could be too much if you just need the big picture. A medical dictionary won't provide the comprehensiveness you'll find in a peer-reviewed research study, but it can at least help you learn the easiest-to-understand distinctions and similarities between related concepts.

5. Filling in incidental details

Finally, your medical dictionary can be a helpful tool for filling in the blanks when a term is completely new to you. You'll continue to encounter new medical language throughout your career as a physician, no matter what you specialize in or what practice setting you select.

Every medical and surgical specialty has its own particular language, and you're likely to face many situations in which you're taking care of a patient whose medical history includes a rare disease you haven't heard of at all or at least that you don't know about in detail. For example, some of the autoimmune elements of Hashimoto encephalopathy, a condition unfamiliar to most physicians, are discussed in a meticulous article in Clinical Nuclear Medicine, but having a general definition can clue you in to the fact that it's a thyroid disorder with neurological manifestations—and that's an important place to start.

Overall, your day-to-day work and your learning process will be much more efficient when you can quickly get up to speed with unfamiliar terminology. The more you know about medicine, the easier it becomes to learn quickly when you encounter something new, but you'll never stop facing new challenges or outgrow your medical dictionary.

Heidi Moawad, MD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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