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What is Intensive Care?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Intensive care or critical care refers to the care provided to patients whilst they are in hospital with severe illnesses or injuries that may become life threatening. Critical care usually takes place in an intensive care unit or trauma center. Intensive care was first introduced in 1952 in Copenhagen to deal with an epidemic of polio and the respiratory paralysis it causes.

Prioritising the polio patients over patients in the general ward and providing them with respiratory support through the use of ventilators reduced the risk of death by around 90%. This was the birth of the intensive care unit or ICU.

Indications for intensive care are wide ranging and examples include:

  • Major accidents that have caused massive blood loss or injury to the brain or other vital organs
  • Complications of long-term surgery such as blood loss and problems with anesthesia
  • Life threatening infections such as sepsis or infection that has spread to the blood stream and is affecting major vital organs
  • Severe allergic reactions or anaphylactic shock
  • Severe breathing problems such as exacerbation of asthma or other lung conditions and respiratory paralysis
  • Heart conditions such as heart failure, heart attacks or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
  • Severe drug overdoses or poisoning
  • Organ failure

Equipment

The intensive care unit is equipped with:

  • Life saving drugs
  • Cardiac monitors for tracking the heart's rate and rhythm
  • Pulse oximeter for monitoring blood oxygen levels
  • Monitors to assess arterial blood gases
  • Intravenous (IV) tubes
  • Catheters and urine bags to drain and measure urine
  • Breathing machines or ventilators
  • Feeding tubes to nourish the unconscious patient

Specialists

The intensive care unit is manned by a team of specialists that include:

  • Cardiologists, cardiac interventionists
  • Anesthetists
  • Pulmonologists or lung specialists
  • Nephrologists or specialists in the kidney
  • Gastroenterologists or specialists in the gastrointestinal system
  • Orthopedicians and surgeons
  • Specialists in internal medicine
  • Specially trained critical care nurses
  • Pharmacists, microbiologists, pathologists, biochemists and laboratory technicians

Reviewed by , BSc

Last Updated: Oct 10, 2013

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