How is critical care medicine different from emergency medicine?

Dr. Darria Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist

Incidentally, more and more emergency medicine doctors are receiving training as "critical care" specialists because our patients are getting sicker and spending more time in the ER. With new fellowship programs, you may find that your ICU doctor is also an ER doctor by training. 

Traditionally, the critical care doctors were those in the ICUs, and emergency medicine doctors were in the ER. However, as ERs are getting more crowded and seeing higher volumes of patients, we are practicing more and more critical care in the ER itself. So, most patients that need critical care have that started by the ER doctor, and then are transferred to the ICU. In the ICU, they will receive more long-term treatment by a critical care doctor who specializes in internal medicine, emergency medicine, pulmonology, surgery, or neurosurgery/neurology.

The difference between critical care medicine and emergency medicine is that emergency medicine focuses on the acute stabilization of the patient. This is the initial care someone receives following an accident or event, which leads the person to seek care in the hospital. After being initially stabilized in the emergency room (ER), the critically ill patient will then be admitted to a critical care unit, also known as the intensive care unit. Here, the person will continue to receive further evaluation, diagnosis and treatment.

Joseph Miccoli
Family Practitioner

Emergency medicine is practiced as the initial point of care for the patient entering the hospital system. The patient is triaged in emergency medicine to either be treated and discharged home or admitted to the hospital.

Critical care medicine is what is practiced in the various intensive care units (medical, surgical, cardiac). It involved the patients that are the least stable and require more atttention from clinicians and nursing staff.

Cynthia Kubas , NASM Elite Trainer
Sports Medicine Specialist

Think of the difference in terms of the degree of urgency. Emergency Medicine is administered in response to an unexpected event, whether it be a cut requiring a bandaid, or a heart attack which requires immediate intervention to save a life. It is care administered on an "urgent" basis. Critical care medicine is given to patients who are seriously ill or injured on a continuous basis after the initial treatment, and may be required for days or weels generally before the patient is stabilized and able to receive less intensive monitoring and intervention. Most hospitals have both an emergency room and a critical care unit.

Critical care medicine is the ongoing care of a patient, whereas emergency medicine responds to a patient’s emergent needs or medical condition.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.