What is an ICU?
Intensive care unit (ICU) is a specially equipped hospital unit that provides highly specialized care to patients who suffer from a serious injury or illness. A multidisciplinary team (physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists) trained in care of critically ill or injured patients provides continuous observation and monitoring as well as specialized care. There are over 5000 ICUs in the United States, and different units may specialize in specific areas such as neonatal, pediatric, and cardiac care.
Patients are admitted to the ICU from an emergency room, from an operating room, from another care area within the same hospital, or after being transferred from another hospital. Admission is based on a physician finding that close observation or specialized monitoring and/or therapy is necessary. Once close observation and monitoring or specialized therapies are no longer required, the patient is discharged from the ICU to either a regular hospital room or a concentrated care (step-down) unit where modified observation or therapy can be administered.
Because the level of care required of critically ill patients does not diminish during the night, critical care units are busy 24 hours a day. There are many alarms on the monitoring equipment that sound at all hours, often making rest difficult. As patients improve, one of their first complaints is the lack of sleep they receive. This is usually a good sign that they have improved enough to move from the ICU.
Patients in the ICU
In addition to being closely monitored, patients in ICU often require medication to keep them comfortable, which may diminish their level of responsiveness. The level of sedation will vary from person to person, depending on their condition. Some patients are easily arousable and are able to converse, while others may need to be sedated enough that they are unresponsive to verbal stimulation.
It is important to remember that although ICU patients may not be able to respond to a voice or touch, they may still be able to hear and feel. Visiting family members should talk to them, hold their hand, and let them know they are loved.
Care in the ICU is provided by a multidisciplinary critical care team, which is composed of specially trained physicians, nurses, and other professionals. Each individual brings his or her particular expertise to the team. Members of the team may vary from hospital to hospital.