A Brit’s Guide to Health Matters in the U.S.: Learning the Lingo

Orlando Bloom needs to work on his bed side manner in The Good Doctor. (Fastnet Films)

Orlando Bloom needs to work on his bedside manner in The Good Doctor. (Fastnet Films)

As Brits quickly discover, there are huge differences between the American and British healthcare systems. For most people here, there’s no “free” health care in the U.S., but often, a mountain of paperwork involved with each doctor visit or procedure. What is not immediately appreciated is the equally huge difference in terminology, and if you’re not au fait with it, things can get quite confusing.

First of all, sick and ill have the opposite meaning. If you’re sick, you’re not necessarily throwing up; you probably have a fairly serious ailment, and lots of sympathy from friends and family. If it’s whispered that you’re very sick, you’re probably on your last legs. The action of being sick (to mean throwing up) is heard here as well. If you’re ill, on the other hand, you’re temporarily sick to your stomach and possibly heaving over a bucket. The noun sick, as in “there was sick on the carpet” isn’t used either; it’s vomit, puke, throw up, or variations thereof.

Half of the diseases and maladies you know also acquire new names in the States. Glandular fever becomes mono (short for mononucleosis) and Motor Neuron Disease is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although strep (streptococcus) throat is common in both countries, it’s usually called a sore throat in the U.K. and many British doctors just leave it to disappear on its own. If you have that sore throat in the U.S., there’s a quick and simple strep test (performed by a qualified nurse or doctor) that involves sticking a giant Q-tip (cotton bud) down your throat, gagging like a two year old, then waiting 5 minutes for a yea or nay. If it’s strep and your doc decides to treat it, it’s often with a Z pack (pronounced zee pack), which is a course of antibiotics named Zithromax.  We Brits also don’t use the term staph (staphylococcal) infection quite as much as Americans, but replace it with MRSA or cellulitis and we know exactly what’s going on.

One thing I used to worry about when walking barefoot at public pools, was catching verrucas. Many Americans will think you’re referring to Veruca Salt, the character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as they prefer the correct medical term plantar wart. Should you be unlucky enough to have a verruca, most creams will not feature the word, so look for plantar wart treatments.

And speaking of treatments, it can be very trying when you’re not feeling well and all you want is a packet of Paracetamol. They don’t sell it here (except perhaps at Brit stores), but since it’s actually a brand name for acetaminophen, you can find the same drug properties in Tylenol. If you’re looking for an ibuprofen drug, you probably won’t find Nurofen or Anadin, but you will find Motrin and Advil, which are equivalents. Oh, and anything with codeine in it isn’t sold OTC – over the counter. (This obviously, does not constitute medical advice. If in doubt consult the pharmacist on duty; these people are very knowledgeable and extremely helpful.)

Although both Brits and Americans use the word prescription, sometimes you’ll hear your doc talking about a script and if you see the letters Rx next to anything, it also refers to prescription medication. Doctor written prescriptions are, unfortunately, just as illegible in the U.S. as they are across the Pond. The person who dispenses your prescription is the pharmacist, (although I have also heard druggist) and the place where you collect or fill it, is the pharmacy or drug store; in most instances, any reference to a chemist means the person rather than the shop.

Your medical practitioners might also go by different names. Women typically see an OB/GYN for their specific requirements. These obstetrician/gynecologists are not usually referred to as gynies. The person that fiddles with your feet is a podiatrist (although the word chiropodist exists), the one that cracks your back is a chiropractor and for your eyes, you’ll most likely see an optometrist. If you have serious eye issues, you’ll be referred to an ophthalmologist, which is an eye surgeon. An optician is the person who makes or sells glasses and contact lenses.

A final word of warning: when you go to see your doctor, you go to the office and not the surgery. Telling friends and family that you’ve been to the surgery will likely give them a heart attack.