When someone is admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU), it is because they are suffering from an actual or a potential life-threatening condition. Although it is true that most people admitted are in a serious condition, some are admitted to protect them from a potentially serious problem.
The ICU of a hospital fulfils different tasks, depending on its size and the services it delivers. But for anyone who is admitted, the admission procedure remains more or less the same. What may differ are the length of time and the complexity of the admission procedures.
Getting an intensive care unit bed
People can be admitted to ICU from the community, the emergency department, operating theatres, other wards in the hospital, or from practically anywhere.
A doctor will ring the ICU staff asking them about getting a bed. If the intensive care doctors agree that the person needs to be in the ICU and there is a bed available, the person will normally be admitted.
When the person first arrives in the ICU
- They will be connected to the intensive care monitors and other equipment to support their breathing and infusion pumps (a device that gives fluids).
- They will be thoroughly examined to check their condition and any other problems. This may include a physical examination, blood tests and x-rays. The ICU staff may also need to interview the next of kin for further information.
- The ICU staff will develop a plan of care once the person is examined, and begin to carry out the plan. At this point, it may be possible for the family to visit and ask questions of the staff.
The timeframe for these admission procedures depends on the condition of the person, their plan of care and the immediate treatment they need. They may need immediate resuscitation and care, especially if their condition is unstable.
Plan of care
Over the next few hours, the plan of care will start, which can include:
- setting up to monitor vital functions by inserting a catheter into various arteries in the body to take blood samples and to monitor heart and lung function
- further testing such as blood tests, chest x-rays and electrocardiograms (ECGs), and possibly more complex tests such as computer tomography (CT) scans
- using medicines or machines to support organs such as the lungs (e.g. bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) - see Breathing support), heart (e.g. medicines) and kidneys (e.g. dialysis)
- doing procedures, such as inserting vascular catheters (see Vascular access) or chest drains
- doing surgery if necessary to stop bleeding or relieve pressure on the brain.
The plan of care is updated as new information is received and/or if the person’s condition changes.
Visitors are generally allowed as soon as possible. But sometimes this can mean hours, rather than minutes. Visitors are important, but getting the person condition stable is more important.
Please check the visiting policy in your ICU for further explanations.
Some hospitals have social workers and/or pastoral care workers dedicated to the ICU. They can act as a liaison between ICU staff and visitors, and can give visitors updated information on the condition of their loved one.
Social workers are trained to help people. They can give information on issues such as accommodation and where to eat. They may also be able to help with legal and financial issues. You can ask for this service at any time.
Version 1.1 Published 2015. Next review 2023.
The information on this page is general in nature and cannot reflect individual patient variation. It reflects Australian intensive care practice, which may differ from that in other countries. It is intended as a supplement to the more specific information provided by the doctors and nurses caring for your loved one. ICNSW attests to the accuracy of the information contained here but takes no responsibility for how it may apply to an individual patient. Please refer to the full disclaimer.