Knowledge representation involves enumeration of conceptual symbols and arrangement of these symbols into some meaningful structure. Medical knowledge representation has traditionally focused more on the structure than the symbols. Several significant efforts are under way, at local, national, and international levels, to address the representation of the symbols though the creation of high-quality terminologies that are themselves knowledge based. This paper reviews these efforts, including the Medical Entities Dictionary (MED) in use at Columbia University and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. A decade's experience with the MED is summarized to serve as a proof-of-concept that knowledge-based terminologies can support the use of coded patient data for a variety of knowledge-based activities, including the improved understanding of patient data, the access of information sources relevant to specific patient care problems, the application of expert systems directly to the care of patients, and the discovery of new medical knowledge. The terminological knowledge in the MED has also been used successfully to support clinical application development and maintenance, including that of the MED itself. On the basis of this experience, current efforts to create standard knowledge-based terminologies appear to be justified.