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What Do Critical Care Physicians Do?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Critical care physicians oversee treatment for patients with life threatening illnesses. Also known as intensivists, they may work in hospital environments as well as mobile units for patient transport. Cooperation is involved in this medical specialty, because patients may need treatment from specialists along with monitoring from nurses and technicians. Someone interested in this career will need to attend medical school and a residency to prepare for practice, and may want to consider a fellowship to refine skills.

When patients with life threatening conditions arrive for medical treatment, critical care physicians evaluate them. They quickly collect information that may be relevant to diagnosis and treatment. This can include ordering tests, interviewing patients or family members, and discussing the case with emergency medical technicians. If the patient’s chart is available, it may contain useful data on the patient’s history that could inform the course of care.

After evaluating a case, the physician can determine what must be done to stabilize the patient. This addresses the most important issues, like low blood volume or the inability to regulate heart rate. Once the patient is stable, long-term care to address the underlying problem can begin. Critical care physicians may order that patients be attached to monitoring equipment and regularly checked by nurses. Any signs of change can be duly noted to assess the patient’s response to treatment and update the overall outlook on the case.

Intensive care units, including mobile units for transport, may be supervised by critical care physicians. They determine who to admit, and work with the staff on discharges. Patients can be sent to step down or intermediate units as they start to recover and require less intensive care, or they may be sent to hospice if further treatment is unlikely to be helpful. Critical care physicians can set ward policies, work on infection control protocols, and keep staff working smoothly and effectively together.

Careers in critical care medicine can involve working with patients who have a variety of medical issues. These include people responding poorly to surgical treatment, accident victims, and people needing care after strokes or cardiac events. A mixture of medical skills can be valuable, as can the ability to coordinate with specialists who may provide extra services on the ward. Some critical care physicians focus on particular medical issues; for example, someone might work in a cardiac intensive care unit which only provides treatment to patients with heart problems.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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