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Medicine’s "secret" code

To you Internet savvy folks out there, LOL means “laugh out loud” but to us doctors, “LOL” usually means “little old lady.” We have shorthand for everything, and our notes can look like stock tickers to the uninitiated.
For example, “NAD” means “no acute distress” (which, when translated into consumer speech, basically means that the person looks well). We shorten common words with an “x” after the first letter. So “diagnosis” becomes Dx, “treatment” becomes Tx, and “past medical history” becomes “PMHx.” Of course, there are some exceptions – “significant for” becomes s/f and “chief complaint” (or the reason why the patient believes he or she is there to see you) becomes CC. The events leading up to the chief complaint are called the “history of present illness” or HPI.
We also abbreviate the most common diseases, so that hypertension becomes HTN, diabetes mellitus is DM, heart attack is MI, and coronary artery disease is CAD. We like to use “status post” to indicate “after” something happened. And many symptoms have shorthand: DOE means “dyspnea on exertion” which is basically that you get short of breath when you walk. Or chest pain, CP. We sometimes use “?” when the patient is a poor historian (this usually indicates psychosis, dementia or severe language barrier). The pain scale is always listed as a fraction of 10. We can summarize a person’s mental status with how alert and oriented (meaning they know their name, where they are, and what the date is – they get 1 point for each of 3) they are. Vital signs (VS), such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate, are considered “stable” or VSS if the values are all normal. Now let’s see if you can decode these short medical notes on 2 theoretical patients in the ER:
HPI: s/p long walk
PE: LOL in NAD, A&Ox2,VSS, 0/10
Dx: r/o MI
Patient #2
CC: CPx1 hr, 10/10
HPI: s/p walk
Dx: r/o MI
Now, both of these patients have the same diagnosis listed, but I can tell you that the first patient is going to wait around for many hours before she’s treated, but the second case is going to marshal the cavalry immediately.
Can you picture in your mind’s eye what patient #1 is like? A little old lady who appears physically well but is complaining of shortness of breath (we think – we’re not really sure what her main problem is as indicated by the question mark) and is a little bit disoriented. She has no major medical problems.
Now the second lady has severe chest pain that has been going on for an hour. She has all kinds of risk factors for a heart attack and appears unwell. This is worrisome, indeed.
So that’s your crash course in medical short hand. Do you think you can crack the code on your next chart review?
My next post will discuss one consumer’s fear of medical shorthand… So stay tuned!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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5 Responses to “Medicine’s "secret" code”

  1. RH Host Marly says:

    AWESOME!! Thank you:)

    What would the short hand for an old man be: LOM?

    What about a young woman?
    Obese man?


  2. Anonymous says:

    That was like deciphering one of those puzzles that is supposed to build your brain.

  3. ValJonesMD says:

    Ha, ha! Great analogy. It is kind of like a brain game, isn’t it? Maybe we can argue that medical charts should be kept cryptic so we have to exercise our brains to understand them? That’s certainly looking at the bright side of the mess!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Oh it’s horrible to be catapulted at age 65 into LOL status! Why are men “elderly gentlemen” instead? It’s enought to turn a “pleasant lady in NAD” into a “beligerent LOL in AD!”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oops–belligerent. LOLs can’t type very well.

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