The weird and wonderful world of SNOMED codes

Lucy Mitchell
6 min readMay 8, 2020

A pseudo-professional quest for the most esoteric socio-medical terms.

SNOMED CT is a funny beast. The CT stands for Clinical Terms, and SNOMED (as it’s generally known) is basically a computer-comprehensible language for medical terms. It’s part of the way the world is going to digitise health, through turning information in people’s medical notes into structured data.

If you’ve ever watched Casualty or 24 Hours In A&E, you’ll know that people do all sorts to themselves, through accident or intent. Humans have an unfettered propensity to do themselves a kaleidoscopic amount of damage, from the inane to the rather boggling to the the really-not-funny-and-why-hadn’t-I-watched-The Simpsons-instead. To this day, my six months of working in A&E takes up as much mental RAM as my 18 months in outpatients.

It stands to reason, therefore, that a medical terminology styling itself as “the most comprehensive and precise multilingual health terminology in the world” would have to cover a lot of bases. It actually gets updated every 6 months or so, and I’m really starting to appreciate why.

As a developer working on Birdie Care’s digital assessment suite, I got to work with senior developers who were integrating SNOMED into our workflow, making sure we’re trying to aim for interoperability and best practices for global health and social care from the start. While this was incredibly interesting and rewarding as someone with a dual background of health and tech, I also found a new hobby: fishing around in SNOMED for the most obscure terms. I knew there were weird terms in other terminologies like the ICD-10, but SNOMED is different to a classification system like the ICD-10, and it’s also MASSIVE. This hobby is similar, in a way, to Googlewhacking, but the joy and this resultant blogpost are entirely subjective.

The SNOMED term browser is used in this way:

You search for something (in the box with the pink circle, you can see I’ve searched for hypertension or high blood pressure), and a list of results comes up below it. If you click on something — like I’ve clicked on the first result — information comes up on the right hand side including the blue box. Generally, people are used to searching for health or clinical terms in SNOMED

However, it has some quite unexpected hidden depths.

Here are my favourite finds:

  1. The accidental search that started this whole thing off for me: the granularity with which one can record any kind of mishap with a cable car. I dread to think why all of these are necessary.

2. This was swiftly followed by a recommendation from another developer which crops up in a few different systems; a classic, one could say:

3. Which also led me to find this very specific gem:

4. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just Greyhound but indeed all possible sighthounds. Through this, I learned two things: two breeds of dogs which are similar to salukis (azawakh, sloughi), and that SNOMED actually has every breed of domesticated dog (and animal) I could possibly think of. Someone has put a lot of time into this.

5. Another recommendation from a developer. Searching the SNOMED browser for spacecraft does not disappoint.

5b. See also: atomic power plants (and water skiing?). Well, it exists, so I imagine somebody somewhere has had to use this:

6. In a similar vein to the dog rabbithole, I found myself learning a lot about artillery and firearms:

6b. And… I don’t know. This one just stuck with me as rather antiquated:

7. I really enjoyed the specificity of this one; it seemed like the kind of detail you need when you’re trying to prove a point:

7b. Interestingly, the only Prisoner of war SNOMED entries are for Japan and Germany despite the fact that multiple countries have had PoW camps including many in the UK. However subtle or subconscious, this rather reinforces the awareness that SNOMED might be globally used, but it’s written in English and this has a decidedly Allied tilt to it…

8. …However, as an English person, I did truly delight in the finding of not just one particularly idiomatic English SNOMED term:

8b. Not even two - I hope this particular one is used by GPs and doctors when they’re gathering details from someone:

I mean, when combined with this one, I can almost hear the sarcasm on Accidental:

And I can honestly say the places people manage to put a Wii remote and have to make a trip to A&E really deserves one of these:

8c. But anyway - the third English one really took the biscuit:

9. By this point I was really enjoying the strong overlap between SNOMED codes and Mr Bean episodes:

10. And truly learning something new every day (I’m going to be amazing at really weird pub quizzes, thanks to this):

(“Blue bloaters” is used to describe those who have chronic bronchitis, and “pink puffers” are patients with emphysema. I’m not entirely sure how politically correct that is but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

11. Lastly, the one that has caused the most lasting impression. I simply can’t get to grips with it. It almost feels like a riddle, and I think that’s why it makes me laugh so much. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps someone got a papercut from their subpoena, or served someone their papers so aggressively they got de Quervain’s tendonitis.

Thanks for reading. Send me your favourites if you find some! I’ll leave you with this delightful book, as well.



Lucy Mitchell

Technical Writer. Former NHS OT and software developer in health tech. I like bikes and plants.