The intensive care unit (ICU) is a special ward found in some hospitals.
What is an ICU?
ICU cares for people who have life-threatening conditions, such as a serious injury or illness, where they receive around-the-clock monitoring and life support. It differs from other hospital wards in that:
- ICU provides 24-hour care from a highly-trained team of specialists
- there are fewer beds, with lots of equipment to monitor and care for critically ill patients
- fewer visitors are allowed
Why are people admitted to the ICU?
A person is likely to be admitted to ICU if they are in a critical condition and need constant observation and specialised care. This can happen:
- after major surgery
- following an accident (e.g. car accident, severe burn)
- during a chronic or terminal illness (e.g. heart or kidney failure, stroke, heart attack)
- during a serious infection (e.g. pneumonia, sepsis)
- if a baby is born prematurely or with a serious illness - there is usually a special ICU for babies called the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU
What happens in the ICU?
ICU can be daunting to both the person being admitted and their visitors due to the lines, tubes, wires and monitoring equipment.
ICU patients can be connected to a wide range of machines, the most common being a heart monitor and artificial ventilators (when patients can’t breathe for themselves). Many ICU machines beep and make loud noises and alarms to let staff know if a patient’s condition changes.
There are also likely to be several tubes either putting fluid and nutrients into the patient or taking other fluids out.
There are many medical staff in ICU. Each patient usually has a dedicated specialist nurse, who regularly checks the equipment and any life support systems.
The ICU healthcare team understands how distressing ICU can be and is available to support immediate family.
What preparation should be made for admission to the ICU?
Admission to ICU is often unexpected, but some people know they will be admitted, such as after major elective surgery. Others with chronic or advanced diseases can be admitted if their condition worsens suddenly. In both cases, an advance care plan can be a very valuable document for a person’s family and ICU staff.
An advance care plan outlines a person’s specific wishes concerning treatment when they are too ill to speak for themselves. Without such a clear statement, doctors might treat a person more aggressively than they wanted. For more information, visit the Advance Care Planning Australia website.
If you or your loved one are critically ill and may need ICU, it is important to discuss "goals of care" prior to admission. The Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society (ANZICS) states that the goal of intensive care is to return patients to a quality of life that is acceptable to them. In order to achieve this goal, ANZICS advise it is essential healthcare professionals explore the values and preferences of each patient. For more information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
What precautions should I take when visiting someone in the ICU?
Every patient in ICU is very unwell so each hospital has a visitor policy. Visitors are usually restricted to immediate family. You can also expect to turn off your mobile phone and be discouraged from bringing gifts. You should not visit if you are feeling unwell.
What happens after discharge from the ICU?
Patients are usually moved to another ward when they no longer need such constant attention or support.
Once a person is well enough to go home, they will be discharged, usually with medicines and instructions for care at home. They may need further care in a hospital, clinic or from their doctor.
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Last reviewed: May 2020