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Working in intensive care

intensive careAn intensive care unit is one of the most challenging but rewarding places to work in a hospital. Find out who works there and what's involved.

What is intensive care?

An Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – sometimes called Critical Care – is for patients who have a life-threatening condition that needs constant treatment and monitoring. This may be because they are recovering from a major operation, have been injured in a severe accident, or have an acute illness like pneumonia.

ICUs are often where patients are transferred after their most immediately dangerous injuries or symptoms have been treated in an Accident and Emergency (A&E) department. Treatment in an ICU can last for days, weeks or even longer depending on the seriousness of their condition. Patients might then be moved to a high dependency unit (HDU) if their condition still requires a lot of treatment, or a general ward if they are making a better recovery.

Who works in an ICU?

ICUs are amongst the busiest and most high pressure units in a hospital, because every patient needs almost constant care and attention. Medical staff in ICUs have to be specially-trained in procedures like acute pain management and how to use specialist equipment like ventilators and catheters. They also need to be able to make quick decisions as they deal with conditions and complications like sudden organ failure, shock or serious infection. Amongst the specialist staff who work in ICUs are:

  • Consultants, the senior doctors in overall charge of the ICU
  • Junior doctors, who perform most of the specialist treatments and anaesthetics needed by patients in the ICU. Some might later become consultants
  • Critical care practitioners, senior nurses who have been trained to deal with the specific physical and psychological problems patients might develop in an ICU
  • Physiotherapists, who help patients to exercise, which is especially important if they have been bedbound for long periods. They might also work with occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and psychologists to help a patient’s rehabilitation
  • Pharmacists, who make sure that critically-ill patients are prescribed the correct drugs
  • Dietitians, who are needed in ICU wards because many patients have to be fed through a tube
  • Radiographers, who take and analyse X-rays, which are important for diagnosing conditions and monitoring patients’ recoveries

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