Essential Medical Terms

Acute and chronic, elective and non-elective, indication and contraindication, illness and disease. Medical jargon is a wonderful thing. However, you don't want to be caught short in your interview when you receive it and don't know what it means. In this blog, I will explain these basic terms, what they mean and why they are important.

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Acute & chronic, elective & non-elective, indication & contraindication, illness and disease. Medical jargon is a wonderful thing. However, you do not want to be caught short in your interview when on the receiving end of it and not know what it means. Also, a mastery of these basic medical terms will clearly set you ahead of the pack if used in your answers. In this blog, I’ll take you through these basic terms, what they mean and why they matter.

Acute or Chronic?

Acute means short term, often taken to mean less than 24 hours. For example, acute pain would be pain lasting less than 24 hours (for example an ‘acute abdomen’). Chronic on the other hand means a more long-term condition with slow progression. This is generally taken as lasting greater than a month. Often chronic diseases are incurable. This does not mean that nothing can be done, it just means that they are described as being ‘managed’. For example, individuals with asthma have a chronic disease (they will never not have asthma), but are able to live normal lives as their condition is managed. The observant of you will have noticed that this leaves a gap for diseases lasting more than 24 hours but less than a month. This are described as sub-acute. Also, to make matters confusing you can have conditions that are acute-on-chronic. These are chronic conditions that are acutely worsening – for example someone with chronic asthma having an acute asthma attack.

Elective or Non-elective?

These terms define types of surgical procedures. Elective surgery is surgery that can be planned in advance and is not an emergency. The best examples of these are joint replacements, laproscopic cholecystectomies (gall-bladder removal) and most cancer surgeries (eg mastectomies). As these procedures are planned months in advance, patients will often come in to hospital the day before their surgery and have lots of tests done, making them low risk. Non-elective surgeries are emergency surgeries. These are surgeries that often come from the A&E or straight from the ambulance. These are generally higher risk (if a patient needs an urgent operation then often something needs doing quickly). For this reason, these surgeries take priority and sometimes leads to elective surgeries being cancelled. The best-known emergency surgery is an appendectomy (appendix removal).

Indication & Contraindication?

These terms describe the reason for treatment and the reasons to not give a particular treatment. For example, an indication for giving antibiotics is chest infection. A contraindication for giving a certain antibiotic is that the patient is allergic to it. Simple

Illness & Disease?

This is one medical schools love and forms a large part of medical sociology. A disease is the biochemical process that cause an illness. An illness on the other hand is a patient’s subjective experience of that disease. Ie disease is the science and pathology, whereas the illness is what the patients feels and experiences. Another definition worth touching on here is that of ‘health’. The World Health Organisation define health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This is interesting as patients can have disease but not illnesses and be considered healthy – eg asthmatics between asthma attacks. Also, is highlights the need to address psychological and sociological factors instead of just treating a disease.

So, there we have it – a quick glossary of essential medical terms. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few essentials worth knowing. Use these in your interview, explain them well and you’ll stand out from the pack. Best of luck everyone.

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