What Is the Difference between Emergency and Critical Care?

A. Reed

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.

An emergency room works to stabilize patients.
An emergency room works to stabilize patients.

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.

Emergency care may be sought for people who have suffered an acute injury, like from a fall.
Emergency care may be sought for people who have suffered an acute injury, like from a fall.

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.

Critical care is required for very ill patients who need intensive inpatient treatment.
Critical care is required for very ill patients who need intensive inpatient treatment.

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Discussion Comments


In film, we always know that a character's health is critical if they're in the ICU ward of the hospital. I think of the ICU as the area for patients whose health condition may change at any time and suddenly. If they are not monitored very closely, their life could be at risk.

I think many of us first learned the difference between the emergency room and the ICU from TV shows and films.


I've actually been to the emergency room quite a few times for issues that were non-threatening. I went once because I cut my finger, another time was because I had the flu. I've even been to the emergency room due to an anxiety attack. All of these needed attention immediately (at least in my opinion), but they were definitely not life threatening.


Last month, we were in the emergency room because my mother had a high blood pressure that wouldn't go down. While we were there, the ambulance brought a middle age woman who had just had a stroke. Basically all of the emergency room doctors rushed to her because her condition was severe and they needed to stabilize her fast. After a few hours in the emergency, she was then moved to critical care in preparation for a surgery.

I think the difference between emergency and critical care is that emergency is kind of like the first step of treatment to make sure that the person has a proper heart rate and respiration. Critical care is more about treating and maintaining those who are alive but need to be supervised at all times.

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