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How Do I Choose the Best Medical Dictionary?

By Suzanne S. Wiley
Updated May 23, 2024
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A medical dictionary is a specialized reference book containing definitions and pictures related to medical conditions. Educational programs, publishers and other institutions that deal with health-related fields often have a preferred dictionary that they recommend or even require others at that institution to use. In many cases, though, places that require the use of a medical dictionary don’t have a specific one in mind. To choose the best medical dictionary for your purposes, you have to look at everything from how clear the pictures are to what sort of access, such as online and mobile, you get when you buy the dictionary.

Part of choosing the best medical dictionary is the same as choosing any dictionary. Look at cost and size, plus the overall number of terms the dictionary covers. This should be listed on the cover, or if you are looking at a used dictionary that is lacking a book jacket, you should be able to find the number in an introduction or preface. Check the edition number, too, as more recent editions will have more up-to-date terms. See how easy it is to turn the pages and read the text.

Medical dictionaries often come bundled with extras like online access, separate drug reference books and medical spell-checker plugins. Take a look at what each publisher offers and how much more the package deals are over the cost of just the dictionary itself. Also check that any online access and electronic additions are compatible with your computer’s operating system and browser. The publisher may also offer additional variations of the dictionary that are geared toward specific fields within medicine, such as nursing.

If the medical dictionary isn’t wrapped in plastic, look up sample terms specific to your field and see how the dictionary treats them. Ensure the definitions are accurate and as detailed as you desire. Also check how words with common prefixes are displayed, as these are sometimes separated from the rest of the definitions and placed in a sidebar or box.

Medical dictionaries are known for detailed photographs that can disgust even the toughest reader, and the number of photographs can be a turn-off in some cases. If you are especially sensitive to images of diseased body parts and surgical procedures, finding a dictionary that doesn’t place more than one photograph on each two-page span is necessary. This lets you cover the photo with your hand while looking up the definition you need. You will eventually become desensitized to the photographs, but until then, choose a medical dictionary that does not present more than one image at a time.

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Discussion Comments

By Wisedly33 — On Aug 26, 2014

When my mom worked for a doctor, she said he kept several old medical dictionaries in his office because even though they might be outdated in some respects, he said they were useful in case he ran across something he didn't see very often anymore.

Medical dictionaries are not inexpensive, so they are not usually replaced very often, and the old ones aren't discarded. When my mom's boss passed away, he willed all of his old medical books to a university's medical school library. They were thrilled to get them.

By Rotergirl — On Aug 25, 2014

My sister took anatomy and physiology in high school and had to have a medical dictionary. Fortunately, one of the local bookstores got some smaller dictionaries in that were good for high school students to use.

Bearing that in mind, I'd say get a dictionary that fits the curriculum, if you're a student. If you're in high school, a basic dictionary should be fine. If you're taking pre-med in college, your professor will probably have a recommendation for a preferred edition, and the same in medical school, although it may be the same one you used in college.

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