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January 9, 2014

Clinical dictionary goes world-wide

A clinical dictionary for foreign and beginning students in the health-care professions, begun as part of a Pitt massive open online course, or MOOC, has become a worldwide project being used by people in 36 U.S. states and 73 countries.

Valerie Swigart, a faculty member in health promotion and development in the School of Nursing, created the six-week MOOC, Clinical Terminology for International and American Students, with Michael Gold, emeritus faculty of public administration in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. It had more than 16,000 enrollees and ended Dec. 16.

School of Nursing Dean Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob had suggested the course because students in the health-care professions find themselves learning a kind of foreign language — medical terms, including numerous variants and abbreviations — when they first are placed in a clinical setting. This is especially difficult when the student’s native language is not English, but it is a tough hurdle for anyone.

“The dictionary was meant to be an adjunct,” says Gold, “because with a six-week course you can’t cover everything you want to.”

The professors looked at existing dictionaries, “and we just weren’t happy with what we saw,” Gold says, “so we decided to go ahead and build it.”

Now the dictionary has taken on a life of its own. “Not only is it a beginner’s clinical dictionary, but it is also for people in foreign countries who are trying to attach what they hear to English terminology,” he explains.

The online resource, Clinical Terminology Dictionary for Beginning International and U.S. Health Care Providers (, offers definitions, abbreviations, audio and phonetic pronunciations in English, plus a usage sample in a sentence and, occasionally, even a picture, for more than 300 terms so far.

The dictionary has contributions in German, Greek, Farsi, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Chinese and Polish as well, with 34 more languages to pick from when adding entries. Anyone can contribute, although all contributors are vetted and their entries are edited. But Swigart and Gold are counting on native speakers of foreign tongues, particularly medical translators, to add more material to help compatriots learn the English equivalents.

“English is really an international clinical language,” Gold notes. “But some people will be using their own language and they want to know what the English is. We just had a request to put in Hungarian, so that will be going in shortly.”

Swigart even expects to find a Cambodian contributor. “We have a teacher who takes students to Cambodia.”

Right now the dictionary has 40 people authorized to add items. Swigart examines a list of those requesting to participate in the last 12 hours: There is an English as a Second Language teacher in France, a fifth-year Brazilian medical student, and a doctor in Mexico, among others.

Entries in the dictionary can be viewed by category, such as diseases and symptoms and laboratory tests. They also can be searched by five different criteria, including partial and related terms. Soon the dictionary also will be searchable by foreign terms and abbreviations.

“It’s a beginner’s dictionary, so we’re not aiming for everything” that might go in a full medical dictionary, Swigart says -— just terms encountered in the first four months of training. She believes it will help the clinical performance of a large group of students in the future “and improve patient safety.”

-—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 9

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