Abstract The objective of this work is to investigate the feasibility of conceptual similarity metrics in the framework of the Unified Medical Language System (UMLS). We have investigated an approach based on the minimum number of parent links between concepts, and evaluated its performance relative to human expert estimates on three sets of concepts for three terminologies within the UMLS (i.e., MeSH, ICD9CM, and SNOMED). The resulting quantitative metric enables computer-based applications that use decision thresholds and approximate matching criteria. The proposed conceptual matching supports problem solving and inferencing (using high-level, generic concepts) based on readily available data (typically represented as low-level, specific concepts). Through the identification of semantically similar concepts, conceptual matching also enables reasoning in the absence of exact, or even approximate, lexical matching. Finally, conceptual matching is relevant for terminology development and maintenance, machine learning research, decision support system development, and data mining research in biomedical informatics and other fields.