Understanding Medical Terms

It can be hard to learn the language of medical care and treatments, especially when you are ill or are looking after a family member or friend. Here are some common terms that may be used by health care professionals:

Medical Terms and Procedures

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR): a procedure that is used to restart someone's heart and breathing. CPR can be mouth to mouth breathing with chest compressions, or it can include electric shocks and machines that breathe for the patient. Often, ongoing life support in the ICU is necessary after CPR is performed.

Dialysis: a medical procedure that cleans your blood when your kidneys cannot. A dialysis machine is hooked up to the patient via tubes inserted into the patient's blood vessels. The blood is taken out of the body through the machine and back to the body.

Feeding tube: a tube that is used to feed someone who can no longer swallow food. The tube may be used in the nostril or through a small incision in the abdomen.

Intensive Care Unit (ICU): An Intensive Care Unit is a specialized hospital unit that provides continuous care and monitoring for patients with life-threatening conditions. This care often includes life support (see definition below)

Intravenous (IV): a way to give a person fluids or medicine by using a needle to insert a tube into the arm or other area of the body

Ventilator: a machine that helps people breathe when they cannot breathe on their own

End of life care terms

Advance Care Plans (also called advance directives or personal directives): These are verbal or written instructions that the patient has provided about the kind of care that want or do not want in the event that they cannot speak for themselves. Advance care plans can be written down or simply told to someone who is authorized to speak for the patient, such as a Power of Attorney or Power of Personal Care. A Living Will is a form of advance care plan.

Comfort Measures: treatments to keep you comfortable (e.g. pain relievers, psychological support, oxygen, etc.) but not to keep you artificially alive or cure any illnesses.

End-of-life care: care that is provided at the end of life and focuses on helping patients live the way they want to during the last few weeks or days, rather than trying to provide a cure or treatment for the illness.

Life support: medical or surgical procedures such as tube feeding, breathing machines, kidney dialysis, some medications and CPR. All of these use artificial means to restore and/or continue life. Without them, the patient would die.

Palliative Care: care provided for people who have a terminal illness that focuses on providing good quality of life - in other words, keeping the patient as comfortable and free of pain as possible. Palliative care may involve medicines, treatments, psychological/social services and spiritual support, both for the patient and for those who are helping to care for them.

Power of Attorney / Power of Personal Care: These terms usually indicate someone who is legally appointed to speak on your behalf. Typically, you would have a witnessed document naming your Power of Attorney / Power of Personal Care and outlining their responsibilities.

Substitute Decision Maker / Proxy / Agent: the person that you choose to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become unable to do so. This may be your Power of Attorney or Power of Personal Care. You should provide this person with your advance care plan, and you should also have a conversation with them about your wishes for care.

Terminal illness: an incurable medical condition caused by injury or disease. These are conditions that, even with life support, would end in death within weeks or months.

*please note that terms can vary depending on your geographical location

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