Critical care is also referred to as intensive care. It is a type of care that involves treating and managing injuries and illnesses that are very serious and may be life-threatening. Surgical complications, accident injuries, severe infections, and serious respiratory issues are examples of conditions that may require critical care. Patient receiving this level of care may get better and transition to other types of care, but many people die in critical care.

This type of care is usually given in what is called an intensive care unit, or ICU. The ICU is staffed by trained professionals and equipment needed to provide life support. ICUs may be specialized for children or infants or may be for adults or for people of all ages; another specialty is post-operative intensive care. Most hospitals have an ICU and are staffed by a critical care team.

What is Critical Care?

Critical care is a type of medicine that is dedicated to evaluating, diagnosing, treating, and managing life-threatening illnesses and injuries. This type of care often requires more advanced technologies than are available in an emergency room or other medical setting. Patients may be transferred from an emergency room to the critical care unit once they have been sufficiently stabilized or when the emergency team has done all it can in terms of treatment and diagnosis. Patients may also be transferred from other hospital units or after surgery.

According to statistics, nearly six million people are given critical care in the U.S. each year. More than half of people admitted to emergency rooms will be transferred to an ICU. The most common reasons for admission are for neurological conditions, cardiac conditions, and respiratory conditions. Some reasons people go to the ICU for care are poisoning, kidney failure, gastrointestinal hemorrhages, and diabetes complications. The average length of stay in the ICU is just under four days.

The Intensive Care Unit

Critical care is administered in an intensive care unit, which in some places is called the critical care unit. The ICU is reserved for patients who are very sick and need critical care. The staff in an ICU is specially trained to work with these kinds of patients. Care and monitoring of patients in the ICU is, as the name describes, intensive. Staff members observe patients closely and each nurse is typically responsible for just one or two patients at a time.

In addition to the close care, the available equipment in the ICU sets this department apart from other areas of a hospital. Many patients in this kind of care need organ support to prevent failure. Commonly, these patients need ventilators to assist with breathing. Patients in the ICU are also connected to monitoring equipment to keep tabs on heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.

ICU equipment is typically categorized by organ systems. The equipment is used to support the organ systems in patients and keep them from failing: cardiovascular system, central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, endocrine system, respiratory system, and the renal system are the major organ systems supported by ICU equipment. Patients may also receive care for blood issues, infections, and the skin.

Patients Needing Critical Care

Patients admitted to an ICU may be there for varying reasons, but what they all have in common is that they need close attention and monitoring and they need advanced equipment, often life and respiratory support. The main criteria for admitting a patient for critical care are serious and life-threatening conditions, but also the possibility that with intensive treatment and monitoring that the patients can recover. Many patients do not recover in critical care, but as long as there is that possibility, the ICU is usually the choice for care. Some examples of conditions that may send a patient to the ICU are:

  • Various types of shock, including septic shock from severe infection.
  • Acute respiratory failure.
  • Chronic respiratory failure.
  • Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart failure.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Bleeding and clotting disorders.
  • Multiple organ dysfunction.
  • Neurological conditions.
  • Complications of chronic illnesses.

Types of ICU

Many intensive care units are general, and can provide critical care for most patients. Others are more specialized. For younger patients there are pediatric intensive care units and neonatal intensive care units. For mental health crises, there are psychiatric intensive care units. These are mostly used when patients are at risk of harming themselves and need close monitoring.

Other specialized types of intensive care units include those that focus on cardiac care, neurological care, and trauma. Surgical intensive care units provide care for patients before and after surgery and are typically staffed by surgeons. Post-anesthesia care units are devoted to providing close monitoring for patients after surgery and anesthesia.

Critical Care Teams

The medical professionals that staff ICUs and provide care have specialized in this type of care. Critical care as a specialization is relatively new. An ICU staff will include critical care doctors, critical care nurses, both specially trained, as well as specialists like neurologists, surgeons, pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, nutritionists, physical therapists, pharmacists, social workers, and radiography technicians.

What to Expect in Critical Care

If you or a loved one is admitted to critical care, you can expect to be updated regularly as patients in ICUs are monitored around-the-clock. You can also expect to see a lot of equipment that you don’t understand, and this can be intimidating or frightening, but it is important for providing quality critical care. It is also important to understand that patients in critical care are very seriously ill. While the specialized medical staff here will do everything possible to help patients recover enough to be released, not all patients can be cured or helped.

Another expectation to have in the ICU is that family members may be asked to make some important decisions, as patients are often unable to speak. If you have a loved one in critical care, be sure that you have the right people in place to make difficult choices about continuing care or removing life support. It helps to have more than one person to discuss these decisions, even if one person is ultimately responsible.

Critical care is a very important part of medical care. It is used to help treat patients who need advanced technology for supporting organs and who need constant care and monitoring. This crucial component of overall care helps save lives, although the people in the ICU are very sick and not all will survive. Critical care staff are expected to provide specialized care and to keep family members informed regularly so that important decisions can be made in the best interests of the patients.