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Course review: the AUT Certificate of Proficiency in Medical Terminology

15 Feb 2024

By Hannah Burdekin

Could you instantly distinguish arthrosis from arthritis, or a gastrectomy from a gastrotomy?* What about interpreting the alphabet soup that is medical abbreviations or understanding the standard parts of a patient discharge summary?

In April 2023, I spotted a brief advert in the monthly NZSTI Newsletter for AUT’s Certificate of Proficiency in Medical Terminology. I’ve been specialising in medical translation since before I completed my Diploma in Translation Studies in 2017, however I don’t have a medical background or even a vaguely scientific one. And while I worked with a mentor on developing my medical translation skills in the early days and have built up a significant number of resources that I draw on for help with tricky terms or the aforesaid abbreviations, stumbling across the AUT certificate gave rise to one of those lightbulb moments. I’d known that some sort of course would be a good idea but everything seemed to be either too basic or too advanced, or incompatible with the New Zealand time zone. Finally, here was a course that was none of the above, plus it was self-directed and online, meaning I could fit studying around my work and life.

The AUT certificate is aimed firmly at people whose work involves medical language but who are themselves not involved in medical care, for example ward clerks, GP reception staff, health insurance underwriters, and of course translators and interpreters. Medical language is a huge area and one that’s constantly evolving as new treatments are developed. And medical English is of course heavily influenced by Latin and Greek, languages which few of us will have studied at school. The course approach to what might seem an overwhelming amount of content is to break it down by focussing on the meaning of words relating to one body system at a time. That’s not to say that studying is a matter of learning endless lists of diseases or anatomical names: rather, each module first focusses on explaining the basic structure of medical terms and the meaning of the word roots, prefixes and suffixes that make up each term before moving on to how those terms are used. The section covering the musculoskeletal system, for example, initially explains relevant word components – patell/o concerns the patella, chondr/o relates to cartilage, -malacia indicates a softening – and then moves on to the relevant vocabulary, abbreviations, functions and structure, pathology and diseases, and finally tests and procedures. Interpreters will also be pleased to know that each new vocabulary item is presented with its pronunciation.

The course contents draw primarily on the textbook Mastering medical terminology: Australia and New Zealand (3rd ed., S. Walker, M. Wood, J Nicol, Elsevier: Chatswood, 2021), with each course module covering one chapter. The course outline is presented on AUT’s Canvas platform which provides the order in which each module is to be completed, resources such as online access to the textbook and medical dictionaries, a forum for discussion with other students and course tutors, and the assessments that must be completed in order to pass the course. While the textbook is available on Canvas, I can highly recommend buying a physical copy. The textbook contains copious exercises in each chapter which really assist in getting newly learnt knowledge to stick in your brain. The detailed glossaries of word elements and medical terms plus the lists of abbreviations and reference values for lab tests have continued to be a valuable resource for me after completing the course.

As this is a self-directed distance-learning course, no attendance at lectures is required and all studying is done at your own pace. However, the course is divided into four sections, each of which must be completed by doing a multiple-choice assessment before you can move on to the next section. The entire course must be completed within seven months and the individual assessments also have specific deadlines. I certainly found this useful – it’s very easy to start something with great enthusiasm and then lose energy. Having assessment deadlines spread across the period helped me to maintain focus.

In my opinion, pretty much anyone who works in the field of medical translation or interpreting would benefit from this course, although with a couple of provisos. Firstly, this style of learning is not for everyone. I was comfortable studying in my own time but anyone who prefers a more structured programme, wants to interact with their fellow students, or would rather ask questions of their tutor and get an immediate response might struggle. I personally didn’t need to email the course tutors and while they were also theoretically available in the discussion forum, the forum wasn’t used it at all during my course so I can’t comment on how responsive they are. Secondly, the course is probably more suited to someone who already has a basic understanding of medical terminology as the sheer volume of new content might be daunting for a complete novice. Overall, however, I can say that I now approach medical terminology with more confidence and frequently draw on the additional knowledge I’ve acquired. By having an understanding of the individual components of a term, I save time when translating as I need to research fewer words.

I am grateful to NZSTI for assistance with the course fees via their training subsidy scheme, which is available to NZSTI members. The AUT course will run twice in 2024, with entries in March and May, so I recommend finding out more if you think this course could be helpful to you.


*arthr/o = joint, -osis = abnormal condition, -itis = inflammation: therefore, arthrosis is an abnormal condition of a joint while arthritis is inflammation of a joint. Similarly, gastr/o = stomach, -ectomy = surgical removal, - tomy = incision: so gastrectomy is removal of the stomach while gastrotomy is an incision into the stomach. Now you know!


Photo credit: National Cancer Institute on Unsplash


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