Follow Us:

Have Questions?
We have Answers

Click Here to send us a question
and to receive answers from our Experts

Difference between ICU and ER Units in a Hospital

by Viki Kind, End-of-Life Expert
January 15, 2016

Question: How is the Intensive Care Unit different from Emergency Care in a Hospital?

Answer: Great question. In the hospital, there are different departments or areas that take care of people with different health problems. The emergency room (ER), also known as the emergency department (ED), takes care of people who just arrived at the hospital and need to be evaluated. In the ER, the triage nurse will talk to each patient briefly to find out how sick the person is and then the sickest people will be taken care of first. So if someone is having a heart attack, that person will be taken back to see the doctor before someone who has a sprained ankle. This is why the wait in an ER can be so long.  If lots of people are sicker than you, you are going to wait. The ER is able to handle everything from gunshot wounds, car accidents, broken bones, ear aches, the flu and women in labor. One thing that would help ERs work more quickly and smoothly is if patients with less serious issues would go to their regular doctor’s office instead of the ER.  Going to your doctor’s office will help patients be seen more quickly and you will pay a lot less.

The intensive care unit (ICU) is where the sickest patients go. ICU is for those patient who need constant attention from the nurses. In the ICU, either two patients share one nurse or for the most sick, one nurse takes care of one patient.  On the other floors/departments of the hospital, there might be one nurse taking care of 8 patients because these patients aren’t as sick and don’t need such careful monitoring. The goal of the ICU is to get the patient better enough to go to one of the other floors of the hospital.  When the patient moves out of the ICU, that is really good news. If you hear the letters NICU, this stands for the neonatal ICU which is where newborn babies go because they are sicker. There is also PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) which is for children who are very sick. The CCU (cardiac care unit) is for those who have more serious heart issues and need more nurses keeping an eye on them. 

If you are thinking, “Wow, this is a lot of letters,” you would be right. The great thing is that you don’t need to know all the letters, just the ones that apply to you or your loved one. I would encourage you to ask the nurse to explain the letters they are using and if you can, write down the answers so you can keep track of everything. Being in the hospital can be very difficult and it helps if you have a notebook where you can keep track of your questions, concerns and the information the doctors and nurses are telling you. You will also want to write down the names of your doctors and which ones are there to help which parts of your body.

Viki Kind is a clinical bioethicist, professional speaker, and hospice volunteer. Her book, The Caregiver’s Path to Compassionate Decision Making: Making Choices For Those Who Can't,” guides families and professionals through the difficult process of advocating for those who can no longer speak for themselves. She has recently launched a DVD that includes a template to create a quality-of-life statement.

See more of Viki Kind's expert answers

Your Answers and Comments

Post your answer or comment
You must be logged in to post a comment

Previous Expert Q & A

More Previous Expert Q&A