Angie's LIST Guide to
Intensive Care Unit

A patient receives intensive care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility when someone faces a critical illness or life-threatening injury. It involves intense monitoring of the patient's condition.


a mother visits her premature baby in neo natal ICU
An infant born weeks ahead of schedule or with a life threatening conditons often is admitted to a hospital's intensive care unit for monitoring. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

How a hospital ICU treats patients

An intensive care unit (ICU), or critical care unit, is located in a medical facility and contains the equipment and trained staff needed to sustain human life. The foundation of critical care involves machines that closely monitor a patient's condition around the clock. Nurses trained in intensive or critical care are often registered nurses or nurse practitioners with credentials in advanced life support or similar medical areas.

Each bed contains specialized equipment that alerts the clinical staff of changes in the patient's condition. Monitors record respiration, oxygen, heart rate and other body functions in addition to providing minute-by-minute feedback to the patient's primary care team. IV tubing is very common in most units and delivers and monitors needed medication and fluids to patients so they can get the care they need.

You'll also commonly find larger machines like ventilators and additional heart monitors in most rooms. If needed, these machines can help extend life and offer temporary support while recovery takes place. Types of catheterization, such as central and arterial catheterization, are often needed to run a direct line of medication to the main arteries in the body. When the patient is planning on being hospitalized for an extended period of time, such as in a critical care unit, this procedure minimizes multiple IV lines and frees up space for more machines in the room.

When critical care is needed

Most hospital stays for critical care result from a sudden and possibly life-threatening change to a patient's health. Several medical conditions could dictate such a hospital stay, but each case differs in terms of severity and in the combination of other underlying illnesses involved.

Any type of injury that causes damage to vital organs or internal or uncontrolled bleeding should be closely monitored by specialized and trained staff in a critical care unit. Recovery from major surgery often warrants admission to the ICU, as vital signs should be closely monitored in case of an internal problem that might result from complications. Cardiac issues, including severe heart disease, heart attack and uncontrolled hypertension, can send you to the critical care unit until your condition stabilizes or improves.

Any type of breathing assistance, whether through a ventilator or breathing machine, must be monitored around the clock by a trained staff. Organ failure and extreme fluid retention also are reasons for being placed in critical care.

Once you arrive at the hospital, a doctor will evaluate and stabilize you. It is important to be stabilized before you are moved so that your condition does not worsen. The ER physician will make the final decision on whether you should move to a private room, enter the critical care unit or be released.

Issues with ICU treatment

Being in an intensive care unit can be very frightening, not only for you but for your family as well. It can be a time when you and your loved ones are unsure of what to expect. Talk with your doctor and care staff so that they can address your personal medical needs as fully as possible.

If you're approaching a point where you can't make medical decisions yourself, you should have a next of kin or durable power of attorney who can act on your behalf. A social worker can consult with you and your family about a living will. This piece of paper is legally binding and, once signed, whoever you assign as your durable power of attorney can discuss your condition with staff and decide if and when you should transition off advanced life support equipment.

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