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What is an ICU?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon285288 — On Aug 15, 2012

@alisha: How many times did your Granddad stay in the ICU?

By anon254304 — On Mar 12, 2012

My dad just got put into icu at western baptist hospital. The doctor is saying his stomach is bleeding. We're scared. Do you think he might die? I hope he's OK.

By turquoise — On Apr 19, 2011

@ysmina-- I don't know about all ICUs, but the ICU my mom works at has chaplain services. They also have a pharmacy and a dietitian.

I don't think they have psychologists. Since ICU deals with seriously ill patients and after surgery situations, I think they concentrate more on physical therapy, so they have therapists for that.

The chaplain is also there to talk to patients and families and pray with them. But ICU nurses and doctors mainly make up the health care team. I volunteer there sometimes so that's how I've gotten to know so much about it.

By ysmina — On Apr 19, 2011

Do only doctors and nurses work in the ICU? Is there a chaplain for example?

Do they have psychologists or councilors like other departments of the hospital?

By discographer — On Apr 16, 2011

My granddad was admitted to ICU after open heart surgery. He was taken care of really well there. As he recovered, he had different doctors with different specializations taking care of him. The nurses were also very helpful. The clinical nurse specialist was the one we spoke to when we had concerns, she was very helpful and spent time with us as well.

Granddad is doing really well now. I think his time in the ICU really quickened his recovery time because they were constantly checking up on him all the time. The ICU team didn't take any chances and nothing went wrong thankfully. I was scared when I heard he had to stay in the ICU for a while but now I realize how important it is after a major surgery.

This is a really good article by the way, very informative.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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