Critical Care (ICU)

Intensive Care (ICU)

An intensive care unit, or ICU is also called a critical care unit. The ICU is a special hospital department that provides care for severely ill or injured patients whose conditions can quickly become unstable and require constant observation. The purpose of the ICU is to care for patients that need close monitoring by physicians and other healthcare professionals, and to provide life support and other care services for patients with life-threatening conditions. 

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Special Trained ICU Staff

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Special Trained ICU Staff

Specially trained ICU staff may include intensive care physicians and physician assistants, nurses and nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, dietitians and other support professionals.

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Guidelines for Visitors

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Guidelines for Visitors

To maintain a quiet environment for patients, the ICU has strict guidelines for visitors, who may be limited in the number or length of visits, or who may be asked to wait outside at certain times or during certain procedures.

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Who Needs Intensive Care?

ICU Levels

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The Society of Critical Care Medicine issues guidelines for ICU admission, discharge and the treatment priority order known as triage to determine which hospital patients need ICU care.

  • Level 0, for regular hospitalized patients with no intensive monitoring or care requirements.
  • Level I, for patients who require additional monitoring.
  • Level II, for patients requiring more frequent monitoring and interventions that cannot be provided in the lower levels.
  • Level III, for patients requiring life-supportive therapies which can only be provided in the ICU.

In general, the ICU is reserved for Level III patients such as those who have:

  • catastrophic injuries, such as traumatic brain injury, serious fall, car or motorcycle crash or severe burns
  • critical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, diabetic coma, pulmonary embolism, respiratory failure, single organ failure or multi-organ failure
  • infections, such as sepsis (blood infection), pneumonia or drug-resistant infections
  • life-threatening illnesses, such as COVID-19 and influenza
  • serious short-term conditions, such as heart attack or stroke
  • shock, a lack of blood circulation due to conditions such as infection, heart problems, nervous system damage, severe allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock) or heavy bleeding
  • very invasive or complex surgery, or patients who experience serious complications after surgery  

Types of Intensive Care

Some ICUs specialize in a particular type of patient, such as:

  • coronary care and cardiothoracic units for heart patients
  • emergency long term intensive care units (LTAC ICUs) for patients with prolonged critical care needs
  • medical intensive care units (MICUs) for patients that do not require surgery
  • neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for newborn infants
  • pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) for children
  • surgical intensive care units (SICUs) for surgical patients

What does intensive care involve?

Each ICU patient has a unique combination of medical needs and preferences for care. Treatments and length of stay depend on the patient’s individual circumstances, and may include:   

  • close monitoring of vital signs such as heart and other organ functioning, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration, oxygen levels or pressure inside the skull
  • life support therapies using equipment such as ventilators to assist breathing or dialysis machines to remove waste from the blood 
  • intravenous (IV) lines and infusion pumps to dispense controlled amounts of fluids, nutrients, blood products and therapeutic drugs
  • medications to fight infection, promote calm and manage pain
  • drains and catheters to prevent fluid from accumulating in the body
  • feeding tubes for patients unable to eat on their own