Glossary of hospital and care terms

Learn the lingo

Ever been mystified by medical and care terminology? In hospitals and other care settings, words and phrases are often used that are rarely used elsewhere. From “advance directive” to “DNR” – from “full code” to “renal failure” – we’ve put together this quick, plain-language guide to hospital and care terms.


Advance directive: Typically a written document in which a person gives direction on future medical treatment. These include powers of attorney for health care, where a person names someone else (an agent or surrogate) to make decisions for them.

Artificial nutrition and hydration (sometimes called ANH or tube feeding): Providing nutrients and fluids through a feeding tube. A tube is inserted into the stomach via the nose (nasogastric or NG tube), or through the wall of the abdomen into the stomach (gastronomy tube or PEG) or into the small intestine (a jejunostomy tube). When the stomach and intestines are not functioning properly, nutrients and fluids can be provided through an intravenous (IV) tube.

CPR (or Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation): A medical procedure to try to restart a patient’s heart and breathing. CPR in a hospital typically includes pressing hard on the patient’s chest, delivering an electrical shock to the heart (defibrillation), putting the patient on a ventilator, and using medications.

DNR (or Do Not Resuscitate): Refers to a doctor’s written order giving directions in case a patient’s heart or breathing stops. A DNR order tells the healthcare team not to try to restart the patient’s heart or breathing using CPR, but instead to allow the patient to have a natural death. A DNR order is not an order to stop treatment.

Full Code: Refers to a doctor’s written order giving directions in case a patient’s heart or breathing stops. A Full Code order tells the healthcare team to try to restart the patient’s heart or breathing using CPR and to provide other life support.

Hospice: A specialty supporting terminally ill patients who do not want to keep returning to the hospital for treatment, and their families. Focused on comfort, not cure, hospice helps patients with pain and symptom management and creating the best quality of life for whatever time remains.

Intubation, Ventilator, Respirator: Intubation is a medical procedure in which a doctor places a plastic tube into the patient’s mouth or nose, through the patient’s throat and into the trachea, or windpipe. The tube, called an endotracheal tube or ET tube, is then connected to a ventilator (or respirator), a machine that breathes fully for the patient, or assists the patient’s own breathing.

Life support: Includes any of the treatments used to help keep a patient alive, such as a ventilator, dialysis, vasopressors (medications to help raise a patient’s blood pressure) and artificial nutrition and hydration.

Multi-system Organ Failure: Describes a situation where more than one of a patient’s organs (lungs, liver, kidneys, etc.) stops functioning normally, at the same time. Possible reasons for multi-system organ failure include infections, low blood pressure and trauma.

Palliative care: A specialty supporting both chronically ill and seriously ill patients, and their families. It focuses on pain and symptom management, and includes meetings to discuss patient-centered goals.

POLST (or Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment): Refers to a written doctor’s order that covers end-of-life treatments that a patient might request or decline (including CPR, intubation and artificial nutrition and hydration). POLSTs are intended to accompany the patient from home or a nursing home, to the hospital and back.

Renal Failure, Dialysis: Renal failure refers to a medical condition where a patient’s kidneys fail to perform their normal functions (maintaining chemical balance, and removing waste and toxins from the patient’s blood). Dialysis uses a machine to remove waste and toxins from a patient’s blood.


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