Common Medical Acronyms & Symbols

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
In the medical realm, abbreviations abound! Through this lesson, you'll learn to translate some of the most common abbreviations used in a basic physical examination and in medication dosing.

Medicine and Abbreviations

LOL. BTW. TGIF. In life, abbreviations are everywhere, and the medical world is no different. This is especially true because one of the commanding mottos of medicine is 'If you didn't document, you didn't do it.' So in addition to taking care of patients, healthcare providers must accurately record their actions. Many phrases in medicine are quite lengthy and time consuming to write.

Also, much of medical terminology is based in Latin. Similar to writing long-winded phrases, writing Latin can be cumbersome, so abbreviations are a useful tool in simplifying medical documentation. If writing what you need to write becomes simpler, then you are able to work more quickly!

Normally, working more quickly is a good thing. However, you have to be very careful when reading and writing medical abbreviations. Sometimes writing one letter differently can significantly affect the meaning, as you'll see.

Abbreviations Used in a Basic Physical Exam

Before we delve into abbreviations, you need to meet Tom. Tom has a cough, a bad cough. He feels weak and is having trouble breathing at night. So he decides to head to his doctor's office to get checked out.

Now when a patient comes in to be examined, usually vital signs are the first thing obtained. This includes heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Since these are written frequently (practically for every patient!), the following abbreviations have become standard: HR for heart rate, RR for respiratory rate and BP for blood pressure. With the truncated versions of these vital signs, we've gone from 37 letters to 6 letters!

In addition to vital signs, a patient's height and weight are recorded. This allows for the Body Mass Index, an indicator of healthy body weight, to be calculated. Body Mass Index is abbreviated as BMI.

These abbreviations are a type of short hand to reduce the time it takes to record data in a patient chart.
Common chart abbreviations

Lastly, a common abbreviation noted in many patients' charts is NKDA. NKDA stands for No Known Drug Allergies. To a healthcare provider, this is one of the most critical pieces of information contained in the chart! If a provider sees NKDA, then he knows he can prescribe any medication and there is no danger of an allergic reaction.

Okay, so now Tom has been examined. His HR, RR, BP, and BMI have been recorded. Dr. Shorty talks to Tom, examines him, and reaches a diagnosis. Diagnosis is often abbreviated as DX. In this case, Tom's diagnosis is pneumonia. Dr. Shorty checks the chart and sees NKDA under the drug allergies. What's next?

Abbreviations Used in a Medication Dosing

After a healthcare provider has determined the problem, he usually prescribes a medication to help solve said problem. Prescription is abbreviated as Rx. Think for a moment of your local pharmacy. Do you remember seeing Rx pasted somewhere on the wall? This is because a pharmacy is where you get a prescription filled.

This symbol, commonly abbreviated Rx, stands for the word prescription.
Prescription symbol

Well, prescriptions are written with a ton of abbreviations, and this is because most of the dosing instructions for medications stem from Latin.

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