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8 Words with Different Meanings in Medical Labs

The lingo used by medical labs is chock-full of beautiful, descriptive terms and phrases unique to medical science. Polyclonal antibody? That’s just poetry.

It also shares lots of words used in everyday life and gives them entirely different meanings.  That’s where things can get a little mixed up.

Let’s clear up any confusion. Here are eight words used in medical laboratories that mean something entirely different outside of healthcare.

Culture: When most people hear the word “culture,” they probably think of the beliefs, music, art, and food of a certain group.  Or they think of Culture Club, Boy George, and the fabulous song “Karma Chameleon,” which is now stuck in your head. In medical lab speak, culture refers to a cultivation of bacteria or other microorganisms. More specifically, a blood culture is a lab test to check for microorganisms in a blood sample. Like all tests, they come and go. They come and gooo-oh-OH-oh.

Stool: What you stand on to change a light bulb. Or fecal matter. Here’s how you can use both in a sentence: I will not stand on that stool to change the light bulb because there is stool on it.

Positive: Outside medical labs, positive is happy. Positive is good. Positive is Stuart Smalley. Inside the lab, it’s often an entirely different story. Usually positive indicates the presence of an undesired substance, organism, or condition. Or it might mean you’re pregnant, which could be joyous news.

Streaking:  Please don’t giggle. This is serious. When a lab tech streaks, he or she is attempting to isolate a pure strain from a single species of microorganism. It’s a highly effective technique used to determine the causative agent of a bacterial disease. It has absolutely nothing to do with running around naked in public for no good reason. Come to think of it, is there ever a good reason to run around naked in public? Well, other than saving your cat from a tree in the middle of the night after all of your clothes burned up in a house fire that is.

Stain: It could be the aftermath of eating chili dogs in your car, or it could be a dyeing technique used to identify bacteria (i.e. gram staining) in medical labs. The latter is done intentionally. The former usually is not and is probably not going to come out of your shirt. It doesn’t matter if you dab or wipe. It really doesn’t.

Bias: In everyday life, bias tends to have a negative connotation. A biased journalist might have difficulty reporting the news objectively and without prejudice. In the lab, bias simply means the difference between the expected result and an accepted reference value. It doesn’t mean they’re mean or bad results. They’re just results.

Control: By far Janet Jackson’s best studio album. Also: a serum-based material with assigned target values and acceptable ranges to evaluate the accuracy and reproducibility of a diagnostic assay. No dancing or sweet beats. Just sweet science.

Sandwich (Assay): Also known as a two-site, non-competitive immunoassay, this biochemical test is referred to as a sandwich because the analyte in an unknown sample is “sandwiched” between two antibodies. They’re best without pickles.

Hey, by the way … many thanks to Lab Tests Blog, which has a fantastic lab term glossary.

Can you think of any other words or phrases that have completely different meanings in the lab?  Please leave them in the comment box below!


  • Sue DeSutter
    February 24, 2016 - 8:20 pm | Permalink


    • Aaron Ogg
      February 26, 2016 - 7:59 am | Permalink

      What do you mean? 😉

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