Intensive care unit

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Intensive care unit US Navy 090814-N-6326B-001 A mock set-up of the new pod design in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) is on display during an open house.jpg
Intensive care unit
ICU patients often require mechanical ventilation if they have lost the ability to breathe normally. Respiratory therapist.jpg
ICU patients often require mechanical ventilation if they have lost the ability to breathe normally.

An intensive care unit (ICU), also known as an intensive therapy unit or intensive treatment unit (ITU) or critical care unit (CCU), is a special department of a hospital or health care facility that provides intensive care medicine.


Intensive care units cater to patients with severe or life-threatening illnesses and injuries, which require constant care, close supervision from life support equipment and medication in order to ensure normal bodily functions. They are staffed by highly trained physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists who specialize in caring for critically ill patients. ICUs are also distinguished from general hospital wards by a higher staff-to-patient ratio and access to advanced medical resources and equipment that is not routinely available elsewhere. Common conditions that are treated within ICUs include acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock, and other life-threatening conditions.

Patients may be referred directly from an emergency department or from a ward if they rapidly deteriorate, or immediately after surgery if the surgery is very invasive and the patient is at high risk of complications. [1]


In 1854, Florence Nightingale left for the Crimean War, where triage was used to separate seriously wounded soldiers from those with non-life-threatening conditions.

Until recently,[ when? ] it was reported that Nightingale's method reduced mortality from 40% to 2% on the battlefield. Although this was not the case, her experiences during the war formed the foundation for her later discovery of the importance of sanitary conditions in hospitals, a critical component of intensive care.

In 1950, anesthesiologist Peter Safar established the concept of advanced life support, keeping patients sedated and ventilated in an intensive care environment. Safar is considered to be the first practitioner of intensive care medicine as a speciality.

In response to a polio epidemic (where many patients required constant ventilation and surveillance), Bjørn Aage Ibsen established the first intensive care unit globally in Copenhagen in 1953. [2] [3]

The first application of this idea in the United States was in 1951 by Dwight Harken. Harken's concept of intensive care has been adopted worldwide and has improved the chance of survival for patients. He opened the first intensive care unit in 1951. In the 1960s, he developed the first device to help the heart pump. He also implanted artificial aortic and mitral valves. He continued to pioneer in surgical procedures for operating on the heart. He established and worked in several organizations related to the heart.

In 1955, William Mosenthal, a surgeon at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center also opened an early intensive care unit. [4] In the 1960s, the importance of cardiac arrhythmias as a source of morbidity and mortality in myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) was recognized. This led to the routine use of cardiac monitoring in ICUs, especially after heart attacks. [5]


Hospitals may have various specialized ICUs that cater to a specific medical requirement or patient:

Coronary care unit Caters to patients specifically with life-threatening cardiac conditions such as a myocardial infarction or a cardiac arrest.
Critical care unitSome large hospital trauma centers, especially but not exclusively in the United States, divide their main ICU, and perhaps even the other ICUs they may have, into sections that cater to those needing regular intensive care (the regular ICU), and those who are extremely unstable or near death, needing an even higher level of care (the critical care unit, or section).
Geriatric intensive-care unit A special intensive care unit dedicated to management of critically ill elderly.
High dependency unitAn intermediate ward for patients who require close observation, treatment and nursing care that cannot be provided in a general ward, but whose care is not at a critical stage to warrant an ICU bed. It is utilised until a patient's condition stabilizes to qualify for discharge to a general ward or recovery unit. It may also be called an intermediate care area, step-down unit, or progressive care unit. [6]
Isolation intensive care unitAn intensive care unit for patients with suspected or diagnosed contagious diseases that require medical isolation.
Mobile intensive care unit (MICU)A specialized ambulance with the team and equipment to provide on-scene advanced life support and intensive care during transportation. Mobile ICUs are generally used for people who are being transferred from hospitals and from home to a hospital. In the Anglo-American model of pre-hospitalisation care mobile ICUs are generally crewed by specialised advanced life support paramedics. In the European model, mobile ICU teams are usually led by a nurse and physician.
Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)Cares for neonatal patients who have not left the hospital after birth. Common conditions cared for include prematurity and associated complications, congenital disorders such as congenital diaphragmatic hernia, or complications resulting from the birthing process.
Neurological intensive care unitPatients are treated for traumatic brain and spinal injury, subarachnoid hemorrhage, brain tumors, stroke, rattlesnake bites and post surgical patients who have undergone various neurological surgeries performed by experienced neurosurgeons require constant neurological exams. Nurses who work within these units have neurological certifications. Once the patients are stable and removed from the ventilator, they are transferred to a neurological care unit.
Pediatric intensive care unit Pediatric patients are treated in this intensive care unit for life-threatening conditions such as asthma, influenza, diabetic ketoacidosis, or traumatic neurological injury. Surgical cases may also be referred following a surgery if the patient has a potential for rapid deterioration or if the patient requires monitoring, such as spinal fusions or surgeries involving the respiratory system such as removal of the tonsils or adenoids. Some facilities also have specialized pediatric cardiac intensive care units where patients with congenital heart disease are treated. These units also typically cater for cardiac transplantation and postoperative cardiac catheterization patients if those services are offered at the hospital.
Post-anesthesia care unit Provides immediate observation and stabilisation of patients following surgical operations and anesthesia. Patients are usually held in such facilities for a limited amount of time and have to meet set physiological criteria before being transferred back to a ward with a qualified nurse escort. Owing to high patient flow in recovery units, and to the bed management cycle, if a patient breaches a time frame and is too unstable to be transferred back to a ward, they are normally transferred to an intensive care unit in order to receive progressive treatment.
Psychiatric intensive care unit Patients at risk of self-harm are brought here for more intensive monitoring.
Surgical intensive care unitA specialized service in larger hospitals that provides inpatient care for critically ill patients on surgical services. As opposed to other ICUs, the care is managed by surgeons or anesthesiologists trained in critical-care.
Trauma intensive care unitThese are found in hospitals certified in treating major trauma with a dedicated trauma team equipped with the expertise to deal with serious complications.
Nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) Sick baby with nurses.jpg
Nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
A pediatric intensive care unit room at Helen Devos Children's Hospital. Helen DeVos Children's IMG 0454 (5246843158).jpg
A pediatric intensive care unit room at Helen Devos Children's Hospital.
US Army ICU nurse attending to a patient in Baghdad, Iraq ICU1a.jpg
US Army ICU nurse attending to a patient in Baghdad, Iraq
ICU nurses monitoring patients from a central computer station. This allows for rapid intervention should a patient's condition deteriorate whilst a member of staff is not immediately at the bedside. US Navy 030423-N-6967M-090 A central computer system monitors the heart rates of each patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to ensure a quick.jpg
ICU nurses monitoring patients from a central computer station. This allows for rapid intervention should a patient's condition deteriorate whilst a member of staff is not immediately at the bedside.
Mobile ICU of the university hospital in Antwerp, Belgium MICU UZA Nationaal Defile 2018.jpg
Mobile ICU of the university hospital in Antwerp, Belgium

Equipment and systems

Common equipment in an ICU includes mechanical ventilators to assist breathing through an endotracheal tube or a tracheostomy tube; cardiac monitors for monitoring Cardiac condition; equipment for the constant monitoring of bodily functions; a web of intravenous lines, feeding tubes, nasogastric tubes, suction pumps, drains, and catheters, syringe pumps; and a wide array of drugs to treat the primary condition(s) of hospitalization. Medically induced comas, analgesics, and induced sedation are common ICU tools needed and used to reduce pain and prevent secondary infections.

Quality of care

The available data suggests a relation between ICU volume and quality of care for mechanically ventilated patients. [7] After adjustment for severity of illnesses, demographic variables, and characteristics of different ICUs (including staffing by intensivists), higher ICU staffing was significantly associated with lower ICU and hospital mortality rates. A ratio of 2 patients to 1 nurse is recommended for a medical ICU, which contrasts to the ratio of 4:1 or 5:1 typically seen on medical floors. This varies from country to country, though; e.g., in Australia and the United Kingdom, most ICUs are staffed on a 2:1 basis (for high-dependency patients who require closer monitoring or more intensive treatment than a hospital ward can offer) or on a 1:1 basis for patients requiring extreme intensive support and monitoring; for example, a patient on multiple vasoactive medications to keep their blood pressure high enough to perfuse tissue. The patient may require multiple machines; Examples: continuous dialysis CRRT, a intra-aortic balloon pump, ECMO.

International guidelines recommend that every patient gets checked for delirium every day (usually twice or as much required) using a validated clinical tool. The two most widely used are the Confusion Assessment Method for the ICU (CAM-ICU) and the Intensive Care Delirium Screening Checklist (ICDSC). There are translations of these tools in over 20 languages and they are used globally in many ICU's. [8] Nurses are the largest group of healthcare professionals working in ICUs. There are findings which have demonstrated that nursing leadership styles have impact on ICU quality measures [9] particularly structural and outcomes measures.

Operational logistics

In the United States, up to 20% of hospital beds can be labelled as intensive-care beds; in the United Kingdom, intensive care usually will comprise only up to 2% of total beds. This high disparity is attributed to admission of patients in the UK only when considered the most severely ill. [10]

Intensive care is an expensive healthcare service. A recent study conducted in the United States found that hospital stays involving ICU services were 2.5 times more costly than other hospital stays. [11]

In the United Kingdom in 2003–04, the average cost of funding an intensive care unit was: [12]

Remote collaboration systems

Some hospitals have installed teleconferencing systems that allow doctors and nurses at a central facility (either in the same building, at a central location serving several local hospitals, or in rural locations another more urban facility) to collaborate with on-site staff and speak with patients (a form of [telemedicine]). This is variously called an eICU, virtual ICU, or tele-ICU. Remote staff typically have access to vital signs from live monitoring systems, and telectronic health records so they may have access to a broader view of a patient's medical history. Often bedside and remote staff have met in person and may rotate responsibilities. Such systems are beneficial to intensive care units in order to ensure correct procedures are being followed for patients vulnerable to deterioration, to access vital signs remotely in order to keep patients that would have to be transferred to a larger facility if need be he/she may have demonstrated a significant decrease in stability. [13] [14] [15] [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Delirium is a specific state of acute confusion attributable to the direct physiological consequence of a medical condition, effects of a psychoactive substance, or multiple causes, which usually develops over the course of hours to days. As a syndrome, delirium presents with disturbances in attention, awareness, and higher-order cognition. People with delirium may experience other neuropsychiatric disturbances, including changes in psychomotor activity, disrupted sleep-wake cycle, emotional disturbances, disturbances of consciousness, or, altered state of consciousness, as well as perceptual disturbances, although these features are not required for diagnosis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Intensive care medicine</span> Medical care subspecialty, treating critically ill

Intensive care medicine, also called critical care medicine, is a medical specialty that deals with seriously or critically ill patients who have, are at risk of, or are recovering from conditions that may be life-threatening. It includes providing life support, invasive monitoring techniques, resuscitation, and end-of-life care. Doctors in this specialty are often called intensive care physicians, critical care physicians, or intensivists.

An induced coma – also known as a medically induced coma (MIC), barbiturate-induced coma, or drug-induced coma – is a temporary coma brought on by a controlled dose of an anesthetic drug, often a barbiturate such as pentobarbital or thiopental. Other intravenous anesthetic drugs such as midazolam or propofol may be used.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coronary care unit</span> Hospital ward specialized in caring for heart conditions

A coronary care unit (CCU) or cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) is a hospital ward specialized in the care of patients with heart attacks, unstable angina, cardiac dysrhythmia and various other cardiac conditions that require continuous monitoring and treatment.

An intensivist, also known as a critical care doctor, is a medical practitioner who specializes in the care of critically ill patients, most often in the intensive care unit (ICU). Intensivists can be internists or internal medicine sub-specialists, anaesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians, paediatricians, or surgeons who have completed a fellowship in critical care medicine. The intensivist must be competent not only in a broad spectrum of conditions among critically ill patients but also with the technical procedures and equipment used in the intensive care setting such as airway management, rapid sequence induction of anaesthesia, maintenance and weaning of sedation, central venous and arterial catheterisation, renal replacement therapy and management of mechanical ventilators.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Critical care nursing</span>

Critical care nursing is the field of nursing with a focus on the utmost care of the critically ill or unstable patients following extensive injury, surgery or life-threatening diseases. Critical care nurses can be found working in a wide variety of environments and specialties, such as general intensive care units, medical intensive care units, surgical intensive care units, trauma intensive care units, coronary care units, cardiothoracic intensive care units, burns unit, paediatrics and some trauma center emergency departments. These specialists generally take care of critically ill patients who require mechanical ventilation by way of endotracheal intubation and/or titratable vasoactive intravenous medications.

The Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) concept dates from 1988, when Col. P.K. Carlton and Maj. J. Chris Farmer originated the development of this program while stationed at U.S. Air Force Hospital Scott, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. Dr. Carlton was the Hospital Commander, and Dr. Farmer was a staff intensivist. The program was developed because of an inability to transport and care for a patient who became critically ill during a trans-Atlantic air evac mission in a C-141. They envisioned a highly portable intensive care unit (ICU) with sophisticated capabilities, carried in backpacks, that would match on-the-ground ICU functionality.

Mercy General Hospital is a not-for-profit private community hospital located in the East Sacramento neighborhood of Sacramento, CA. The hospital has 342 beds and over 2,000 clinical staff, and serves as the major Cardiac Surgery referral center for the Greater Sacramento Service Area Dignity Hospitals, as well as for Kaiser Permanente. The Mercy Heart Institute and the Mercy Stroke Center are key features of the hospital. It is a member of the Dignity Health network.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">University of Missouri Health Care</span>

University of Missouri Health Care is an American academic health system located in Columbia, Missouri. It's owned by the University of Missouri System. University of Missouri Health System includes five hospitals: University Hospital, Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, Missouri Orthopedic Institute and University of Missouri Women's and Children's Hospital — all of which are located in Columbia. It's affiliated with Capital Region Medical Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. It also includes more than 60 primary and specialty-care clinics and the University Physicians medical group.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neurointensive care</span> Branch of medicine that deals with life-threatening diseases of the nervous system

Neurocritical care is a medical field that treats life-threatening diseases of the nervous system and identifies, prevents, and treats secondary brain injury.

Geriatric intensive care unit is a special intensive care unit dedicated to management of critically ill elderly.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pediatric intensive care unit</span> Area within a hospital specializing in the care of critically ill infants, children, and teenagers

A pediatric intensive care unit, usually abbreviated to PICU, is an area within a hospital specializing in the care of critically ill infants, children, teenagers, and young adults aged 0–21. A PICU is typically directed by one or more pediatric intensivists or PICU consultants and staffed by doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists who are specially trained and experienced in pediatric intensive care. The unit may also have nurse practitioners, physician assistants, physiotherapists, social workers, child life specialists, and clerks on staff, although this varies widely depending on geographic location. The ratio of professionals to patients is generally higher than in other areas of the hospital, reflecting the acuity of PICU patients and the risk of life-threatening complications. Complex technology and equipment is often in use, particularly mechanical ventilators and patient monitoring systems. Consequently, PICUs have a larger operating budget than many other departments within the hospital.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bjørn Aage Ibsen</span> Danish anesthetist who invented intensive care medicine (1915–2007)

Bjørn Aage Ibsen was a Danish anesthetist and founder of intensive-care medicine.

Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center (SNVMC) is a 183-bed, not-for-profit community hospital serving Prince William County and its surrounding communities. Potomac Hospital, an independent, non-profit community hospital, merged with Sentara Healthcare in December 2009 and is now known as Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center (from April 16, 2012). The SNVMC market has experienced tremendous growth since the opening of the hospital in 1972.

Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) describes a collection of health disorders that are common among patients who survive critical illness and intensive care. Generally, PICS is considered distinct from the impairments experienced by those who survive critical illness and intensive care following traumatic brain injury and stroke. The range of symptoms that PICS describes falls under three broad categories: physical impairment, cognitive impairment, and psychiatric impairment. A person with PICS may have symptoms from one or multiple of these categories.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Believers Church Medical College Hospital</span> Hospital in Kerala, India

Believers Church Medical College Hospital (BCMCH) is a healthcare institution of Believers eastern Church based in Thiruvalla, Kerala, India. The Medical College is attached to a 750-bed, multi-speciality hospital. The Medical College, established in 2016, is situated in a campus of about 25 acres (10 ha) connected by rail and road.

The Society of Intensive Care Medicine (SICM) is the representative body for Intensive Care Medicine (ICM) professionals in Singapore.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peter van der Voort</span> Dutch physician and politician (born 1964)

Petrus Henricus Johannes "Peter" van der Voort is a Dutch physician, professor, and politician serving as a member of the Senate between 2020 and 2023. He is a member of the social-liberal party Democrats 66 (D66).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sapna Kudchadkar</span> American critical care physician

Sapna Ravi Kudchadkar is an American critical care physician and anesthesiologist. She is a professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, pediatrics and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 2022, she was appointed Vice Chair of Pediatric Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at Johns Hopkins as well as Anesthesiologist-in-Chief of the Johns Hopkins Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center.


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Further reading