Abbreviations, Acronyms and Initialisms – Revealing the True Meaning

Shortened forms of words and phrases abound in our language: contractions, abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms. When the abridged form is spoken, most people understand what is meant, so much so that many acronyms have become recognised words in their own right (eg, Qantas, laser, scuba, to identify just a few). However, when it comes to writing these shortened forms down, the rules can be quite complex, including the use of capitalisation and punctuation.

The tricky part is knowing what to use and when, because a change in written format can change the meaning of your text. Especially when your acronyms and initialisms are “pronounced” the same way.

Many different organisations have their own lingo and shortened formats of phrases that are specific to their field of expertise. However, the medical field has many abbreviations which sound the same but with completely different meanings. While most acronyms and initialisms are written in a constant format of all capital letters with no punctuation, not all follow the standard. Without going too deeply into complex medical jargon, let’s look at some examples.

  • ECog v ECOG v ECoG (pronounced E-cog): While the first two are rating scales, the first is an Everyday Cognition scale, often used to assess cognitive impairment in the elderly. The second stands for Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and identifies how a patient’s cancer is progressing and the impact the disease has on daily life. The final one is an electrocorticography, a form of EEG which measures electrical signals of the brain. However, unlike a standard EEG, the ECoG electrodes are placed directly on the brain rather than on the skull.
  • eGFR v EGFR (dictated E-G-F-R): Both are pathology tests. However, one measures renal function (estimated glomerular filtration rate) and the other measures epidermal growth factor receptor mutation, a marker of lung cancer.
  • METs v mets, v METS v MetS (pronounced mets): Now, we’re not talking about the New York baseball team here but the medical versions. The first is a metabolic equivalent of task, or a measure of exercise intensity; the small S makes this a pleural. Whereas mets (all lower case) is a common abbreviation of metastases and MetS is an abbreviation for metabolic syndrome.

As you can see, there is a huge difference in format and the ultimate meaning of each shortened phrase. On the up side of all this, the differences in formatting make the meaning extremely clear compared to all the medical initialisms that are written the same way but have completely different meanings.

A transcriptionist’s task is to listen to what you are saying and to put these spoken “words” into context and format the text accordingly. As a patient, I’d much rather have a high level of METs than mets, or have the correct blood tests performed, especially if receiving the correct treatment depends on the outcome.

       

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