Learning About ICU Staff

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ICU staff including technician, doctor, nurse, and food service staff with patient and family.

Who works in the ICU?

You will work closely with staff in an intensive care unit (ICU). ICU staff is more specialized than in other parts of the hospital. Here's some of the staff and what they do.

  • Critical care medicine specialists: Medical doctors (or intensivists) who specialize in caring for people who are in the ICU.
  • Specialists: Doctors who focus on certain areas of medicine. For example, a cardiologist might help treat a heart problem.
  • Nurse practitioner: A nurse with advanced training.
  • Nurse: Responsible for daily care and often a main point of contact for a patient's support network. Nurses keep patients as comfortable as possible. They track vital signs. The nurses can also teach patients and their caregivers how to perform many daily tasks.
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA): A CNA, or nurse's aide, cares for patients under a nurse's direction.
  • Respiratory therapist: Helps treat breathing problems. This may include managing ventilators and other breathing equipment.
  • Physical therapist: Works with patients on exercises to help them move better and relieve pain.
  • Technicians: Operate some of the equipment in the ICU. This may include X-ray machines, ventilators, and feeding equipment.
  • Pharmacist: Prepares medicines and recommends the best and safest medicines.
  • Social worker or family advocate: Helps patients and their loved ones in the ICU. He or she is your guide to the ICU. The social worker helps you understand how the ICU works and handles discharge planning when it's time to go home. He or she can also help if you have disagreements with any members of the ICU staff.
  • Chaplain: Attends to your religious or spiritual needs. Most hospitals have a chaplain or spiritual adviser available. You can request a spiritual adviser in your own tradition as well.
  • ICU clerk: The administrative assistant for the unit. He or she keeps track of everything that goes on in the ICU. This person can be a great contact for you.
  • Cleaning, maintenance, and food service staff: Have special training for the ICU.

While the staff provides medical care, patients have a support network as well. Family and friends are there to give patients the things they can give best: love, hugs, support, and more. The patient support team may also help make decisions about patient care. The staff knows that this is all new to you. They expect you to have questions. They will do their best to answer them.

What else should you know about the ICU staff?

You'll often come to the ICU and find different people working there. This is normal. Nurses and doctors go on and off duty with shift changes. Doctors and specialists may change as they care for other people in the ICU. Doctors and nurses get updated on each person's condition when they come on shift.

Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for the patients in the ICU. They will do everything they can to help. If patients need it, they can ask for support from friends and family. They can also ask the hospital staff about counseling and support.

How can you best communicate with ICU staff?

It's a good idea to keep a running list of written questions to refer to when you're in the ICU.

Expect the ICU to be a stressful place both for you and for the staff. Events in the ICU can happen quickly, and communication can sometimes suffer. With this in mind, be prepared for:

  • Moving of the bed because of patient changes on the unit.
  • Changes in attending doctor because of staffing rotations.
  • Communication challenges between you and a staff member or between medical staff.
  • Personality conflict between you and a staff member.

If you have communication problems, be assertive. Speak calmly and frankly about what troubles you. Say what you expect to happen instead.

If you feel you are having problems with someone who cares for you or your loved one, talk to the ICU social worker or family advocate. This person can advise you. He or she can also be a mediator.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.