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What Is an Intensive Care Unit?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An intensive care unit (ICU) is an area of a hospital reserved for patients who need close and consistent monitoring due to the nature of their illness, injury, or other condition. Intensive care units typically feature highly trained staff, and are usually equipped to handle a variety of emergency situations. Patients in an ICU often remain in the area until their condition reaches a point where physicians feel a less rigorous monitoring and care regime is warranted.

A hospital may have not just one ICU, but an entire department or wing devoted to specialized ICU care. Infants in need of critical care, for instance, are often in a different area than post-operative patients. Dividing an ICU into specialized areas allows better organization and ensures the most necessary staff and equipment are on hand for each type of patient.

Workers in an ICU usually have considerable training in intensive care. Many different people may work in an intensive care unit, including general physicians, specialists, nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, and chaplains. Doctors typically make rounds of ICU patients several times a day, and some hospitals only permit each on-duty nurse to monitor a few patients at a time. Staff in the ICU must adhere to rigorous hygiene and care procedures, in order to ensure that all patients are protected from potential infections, and that each patient is carefully monitored and treated as his or her condition requires.

People may be sent to the ICU for many different reasons. In many hospitals, it is routine for patients to be admitted to intensive care following a major operation, even if there were no complications during the procedure. Emergency patients who are admitted to the hospital may be placed in intensive care if they have received severe injuries that may affect vital signs, or if they have undergone a serious medical trauma such as a heart attack or stroke. Patients who develop severe infections may be isolated in the ICU, both to protect other patients and because of the generally higher hygiene standards in the area. Other patients in the ICU may have existing health conditions that require them to use specialized equipment in the unit, such as ventilators.

Visiting a person in intensive care can be an unnerving experience. Since patients need careful monitoring, they are typically hooked up to many machines that track their vital signs, and may be receiving IV medications or fluids. This can look frightening, but is generally not painful for the patient and not an indication that he or she is in any sudden danger. Visitors to the ICU may be able to visit during more hours than in other wings of the hospital, but are asked to stay away if they are ill or have recently been exposed to a cold or flu. Only one or two people may be permitted to visit an ICU patient at a time, and allowed visitors may be limited to family and authorized guests.

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.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for The Health Board. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Jul 24, 2014

Most of the ICU areas I've seen have very strict visiting hours. They will usually allow one or two people back at a time for a certain length of time, and then the unit is closed for, say two hours, and there are no after hours visits unless the patient turns critical.

There is nothing more awful than getting an early morning phone call when you have a loved one in ICU. It's almost always very bad news.

I don't know how ICU nurses do it, since they have to be on the unit all the time, but I certainly take my hat off to them. They have an incredibly difficult job, but most of them are fantastic. I salute them.

By Scrbblchick — On Jul 23, 2014

They're also the most depressing places on earth -- second only to the ICU waiting rooms.

The ICU area is usually very quiet, and rooms are often glassed in and grouped around the nurse's desk, so the nurse has a full view of all the rooms at all times.

I'm certainly glad they're available, but I never want to visit in one again, for sure. Unless it's a step down unit which is more like a regular hospital floor, when you walk in, you can feel the seriousness of the place. People are waiting either to be moved to another floor, or to die. It's that simple.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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