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What Is the Difference Between Emergency and Critical Care?

Emergency care may be sought for people who have suffered an acute injury, like from a fall.
An emergency room works to stabilize patients.
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  • Written By: A. Reed
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 14 April 2014
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Emergency medicine involves diagnosis, treatment, and care of those experiencing acute illnesses and injuries, including fractures, asthma attacks, and trauma. Critical care focuses upon the care of very sick patients needing 24-hour supervision by a team of healthcare professionals. These patients are housed in the critical care units (CCU) or intensive care units (ICU) of medical centers and hospitals. Differences in emergency and critical care exist according to their purposes, types of patients, and those patients' needs.

Both emergency and critical care are areas of medicine dealing with treatment of seriously ill patients, but one essential difference between them is that, in the emergency room, patients receive care that is directed towards obtaining a stable state or condition. For example, a patient is brought to the emergency room via ambulance due to cardiac arrest. The emergency room healthcare team will work to bring that patient out of arrest so that his or her heart is beating normally, and, once this is done, this patient will be housed in the critical care unit for further care and close monitoring. Patients are in critical care because they need consistent monitoring, as their condition is capable of changing at any moment.

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There are many reasons why people may choose to come to the emergency room, however, that would not put them in a critical care situation. Sometimes people do not have a regular primary care provider, or they may come directly to the emergency room because they are unable to get an appointment with their doctor for such issues as the flu, sinusitis, or other respiratory infections. These are illnesses that typically fall within the category of urgent care, as they require attention within the next 24 to 48 hours or so, but are not actually life-threatening. Critical care does not serve patients for urgent care issues and it is not an entry point into the healthcare system, further proving the contrast of emergency and critical care.

Other ways in which emergency and critical care differ are in the populations served by each, as well as the typical conditions treated or managed. Pediatric critical care units are designed specifically for care and treatment of babies and children, while neonatal intensive care is for the treatment of seriously ill newborns only. Healthcare teams staffing emergency departments are qualified to provide care to patients of all ages with any type of medical problem whether it is serious or not. This is not the case for critical care, as all of the patients are suffering from serious illnesses including systemic infection, respiratory failure, and shock, which could require immediate life-saving intervention. CCU professionals are experts in this particular area of healthcare.

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