An Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is a special facility within a hospital that is dedicated to treating patients who are critically ill. The patients may be experiencing multiple organ failure, respiratory arrest, or other serious problems that require intensive monitoring. The staff are specially trained to administer critical care, and there are sometimes several staffers assigned to each patient to ensure that patients get the care they need.
Intensive care medicine focuses on the major systems of the body, including the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal tract, the central nervous system, and the respiratory tract. Providers try to keep these important bodily systems running smoothly so that the patient remains stable. As the patient's underlying condition is treated, smoothly running bodily systems will greatly improve the patient's prognosis. In a very unstable patient, ICU care may require constant adjustment of medications and treatment programs, along with a very focused and dedicated staff.
Patients will be moved into an ICU if it is clear that their conditions require constant and careful monitoring and adjustment. There, the staff can quickly make decisions for their patients to keep them comfortable and stable, and they have an extensive network of support staff and specialized equipment to assist them in their important work. Intensive care may also be offered to some patients after surgery, especially if the surgery has been traumatic or the patient is at risk for complications.
A hospital may also call its ICU a Critical Care Unit, or CCU. It can be a scary place for visitors, since patients are surrounded by an assortment of machines, and the environment can be very intimidating. In hospitals with adequate staffing, a staffer will usually sit down with a patient's family to familiarize them with the environment, and that staffer may act as a liaison to keep a family up to date on a patient's condition and to answer questions. Families should be aware that the staffers are often very busy, and they may not be able to respond to questions or concerns immediately; if a family member does not have a staff liaison to talk to, he or she should seek out the head or charge nurse of the department to discuss any issues that need to be addressed.
Because these patients are critically ill, the death rate can sometimes be very high. Being committed to the ICU is far from a death sentence, however, and the prognosis of an individual patient varies immensely, depending on his or her general condition and health problems. By installing a patient on an intensive care ward, hospital staff can ensure that he or she gets the best care possible, with the best chance of a full recovery.