Terminology work in medicine and medical technology: demonstrably effective and easier to understand

Medical terminology, i.e. the specialised language used in the medicine and medical technology sectors, is a special – and for many non-specialists, basically foreign – language that needs to be comprehensibly classified and translated if it is to be understood by all those involved. We show which factors need to be considered when working with terminology in medicine and medical technology and how effective and helpful this can be from many perspectives.

Many people have been in a situation where they need a translation for a package information leaflet. The ‘bilirubin value’ is at least known to people who are affected in some way by it. But would you know what ‘eradication therapy’ is or what a ‘selective proton pump inhibitor’ does? Since both are related to a common form of gastritis, you should at least be able to understand it quickly.

Because, especially in the medical field, it is important that you can understand everything that affects you so that you can feel safe and well informed. After all, our health is essential. However, the reality is usually fundamentally different. Most of us know what it is like to listen to medical staff in a doctor’s surgery or hospital and understand almost nothing.

Highly specialised medical terminology

Medicine and medical technology are characterised by a high degree of specialised language, using many foreign and loan words, often even from Latin or Greek.

All parts of the body, all components of anatomy and physiology, all specialist areas, all diseases and even all devices and equipment in medical technology have specialised terms, but they often also have ‘common’ or even colloquial equivalents. These synonyms usually coexist, and their use is specific to the target group.

Here is an example: While an official diagnosis is very likely to use the term ‘hypertension’, a medical professional may be more likely to tell the person that they are suffering from high blood pressure. The person is likely to tell people that they have ‘high blood pressure’. To compare the phrases, the common language used would be ‘I suffer from high blood pressure’ and the technical language ‘I suffer from hypertension’.
It is similar in other contexts. A body temperature just below the fever threshold, for example, is colloquially known simply as having a ‘temperature’, in common language it is known as a ‘high temperature’, while in medical terminology it is considered ‘subfebrile’.

Quickly and correctly understanding is fundamental

This question is important and is interesting in terms of terminology when creating communications that aim to be understandable and simple: What synonyms are there in the different language registers or at the different degrees of specialised language use? Is the situation the same for technical language, general language and also colloquial language?

An inventory of terminology – even as a database – can only be used appropriately if all the synonyms are recorded and correctly assigned to each other. If a database is used, both the specialised term and the general term – and possibly also the colloquial term – would have to be included within one entry. In this context, medicine and medical technology also speak of ‘lay terminology’, which means terms used outside the specialised field.

Addressing the specific target group helps

The ‘lay terminology’ mentioned above does not at all mean ‘below a certain level’, but it is of fundamental importance for the lay people concerned to understand and be able to act accordingly. Complying with treatment is certainly easier and more purposeful if you understand what it is happening.

How much specialised language can be used depends, of course, on the patient’s linguistic competence, their familiarity with their state of health and their requirements for precise specialised information. However, the terminology used in medicine and medical technology must always be geared towards the relevant target group as much as it can be.

In a specialist magazine for doctors, different terms can and must be used than in a pharmacy’s customer magazine. There are other places where diseases are common and comprehensible information about them is important and where it is necessary to address the target group appropriately. For example, the notice board of a nursery would certainly not say that gastroenteritis is currently circulating. Instead it would call it ‘stomach flu’ or colloquially refer to it as a ‘stomach bug’.

Terminology provides important orientation

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how much everyone involved benefits from fixed terminology. It meant that specialised terms that were already being used in a consistent and defined way were quickly incorporated into general language use. Within a few days, almost everyone was using terms like incidence or R-value naturally. In German, the word “virus” had two different possible genders, but soon people were increasingly using just one.

It was a different story for new terminology, such as mouth or nose protection. Since largely undefined terms such as “face covering”, “face protection”, “face mask” or even “community mask” were used synonymously, there was uncertainty surrounding what should be used and how it should be spelt. If, for example, a shop owner wanted to write a sign indicating that mouth and noise protection should be worn in their shop, they had to consider and research which term to use. A range of synonyms was also found on public transport signs. In many places, no language was used at all and a mask symbol was used to alert people to the requirements.

Complying with high regulatory requirements

Precise and unambiguous communication with all target groups is fundamental, especially in the medical and medical technology fields to ensure understanding between experts and patients or users and to fulfil legal and regulatory requirements in various target markets.

The Medical Devices Regulation EU 2017/745 (MDR), for example, includes 71 defined terms in all European languages and additional specifications for consistent terminology use. When translating product information into other target languages, it must be clear that the MDR applies and the requirements must be implemented. If, for example, clinical evidence is not translated according to the MDR, problems may arise with labelling and certification in the country of destination.

Certification of products in a country also depends on compliance with the relevant specifications and standards, performance and safety requirements. Demonstrably proving this is not least a question of correct, consistent and MDR-compliant terminology. This means that the terminology needs to remain consistently close to the product and the documentation must always be up to date.

Since there is an intrinsic high degree of specialised language in medicine and medical technology, terminology work in this field is also very advanced. In most cases, the wheel does not have to be reinvented for companies in this sector, because there are existing terminology guidelines from many contexts or the terminology from regulations such as the MDR guidelines apply. Here, it must be ensured that the terminology is used and integrated correctly in the text creation and translation processes.

Everyone benefits from defined and consistent terminology

Medicine and medical technology are highly technical fields, where correct understanding is immensely important. This means that terminology is not just something that is nice to have and a legal must. It is also the ideal that should be strived for and can be achieved with a reasonable amount of effort. Targeted terminology work in medicine and medical technology is beneficial in a wide variety of contexts and at all levels.

There are different language registers and target groups that are addressed. And a particular challenge is that, alongside the specialised language elements, there are also general language and, often, colloquial equivalents. Using the right terminology shows competence, because experts in the medical and medical technology fields are better able to convince people and create the necessary basis of trust for the healing process by presenting their findings and procedures with comprehensible language.

Furthermore, medicine and medical technology in particular are highly regulated areas in which every small update must be followed up in all languages and checked several times. Doing without professional terminology management here brings avoidable risks.

Do you need professional, secure and high-quality translations in medical or medical-technical communication? Contact us. Our medical translation experts will be happy to advise you on measures and options.

8 good reasons to choose oneword.

Learn more about what we do and what sets us apart from traditional translation agencies.

We explain 8 good reasons and more to choose oneword for a successful partnership.

Request a quotation

    I agree that oneword GmbH may contact me and store the data that I provide.