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Special Care Units


Michael Joseph Pistoria

, MEng, DO, Lehigh Valley Hospital - Coordinated Health

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023

People who need specific types of care while hospitalized may be put in special care units.

Types of units

Intensive care units (ICUs) are for people who are seriously ill. These people include those who have had a sudden, general malfunction (failure) of an organ, such as the liver, lungs (requiring assistance with breathing), or kidneys (requiring dialysis Dialysis Dialysis is an artificial process for removing waste products and excess fluids from the body, a process that is needed when the kidneys are not functioning properly. There are a number of reasons... read more Dialysis ). People who are in shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more , who have a severe infection, or who have had major surgery are likely to be placed in an ICU. Large hospitals may have a special pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) for children. Hospitals may have separate ICUs for different kinds of patients, such as those who have had surgery (surgical ICU), serious injury (trauma ICU), stroke (neurological ICU), or a severe heart attack (cardiac ICU). These different types of ICUs usually have specific monitoring and treatment protocols to support the people who are admitted to these units.

ICUs have equipment to support and constantly monitor vital functions. This equipment includes the following:

Because people in ICUs require more care than usual, more staff members are available to provide care. Visiting hours and rules for visitors are more restrictive in these units.

Cardiac telemetry units are for people who require cardiac monitoring but are not ill enough to require intensive monitoring in ICUs. The cardiac monitors used in these units usually transmit information wirelessly to make it easier for people to walk around and use the bathroom.

Step-down units (intermediate care units) are for people who are too sick to go to a regular hospital bed but are more stable than people in the ICU. Not all hospitals have these units.


Isolation is used to prevent a person from infecting others. Isolation may be

  • Complete (when a disorder can be transmitted through the air), requiring anyone who enters the person's room to wear a special safety mask (also called a respirator), face shield, gown, and gloves

  • Incomplete (when a disorder is transmitted only by contact with the skin, blood, or stool), requiring anyone who enters the person's room to wear a gown and gloves

Small children and people with a weakened immune system should not visit someone with a contagious infection.

Either type of isolation may involve the following:

  • The person is placed in a single room.

  • Anyone who goes into the room must wear the protective equipment described above.

  • The air in the room may be filtered.

  • Visitors are usually limited to the immediate family.

  • People with a contagious infection (even if only a common cold) should not visit people in the hospital, especially someone in reverse isolation.

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