How can I understand the medications given to my loved one in the ICU?

An interesting question and a challenge for many patients and families who at some time has had an encounter in the ICU setting. There is no algorithm to follow in understanding what medications are been given as the medications may change to follow the patient's health status.

Understanding also that the medications typically used in critical care are often concentrated in higher doses or used parentally, which makes them HIGH ALERT MEDICATIONS that are only administered by a Registered Nurse who verifies the medication based on pt, dosage, frequency, time, route and also based on lab values,  weight and nutritional status!. These medications may need different approvals as from departments such as Infection Control, Nutrition, Pulmonary, Hematology, and Cardiology among others before it is dispensed by the ICU Pharmacist. A very intense approach that depends also on guidelines from evidence base medicine!

Here are a few steps to follow:

1. Identify your relationship with the primary Nurse and Physician

2. Schedule a family meeting for discussion with Chief MD and Primary Nurse where you will receive most up to date info on your relative status and present medications

3. Ask why and how the medications work, be sure to mention any allergies that are not known to the team and bring all medications taken at home by the pt   for review by the ICU pharmacist. This ensures safety. 

1. Identify one spoke person for the pt, too many relatives asking same questions randomly, breaks flow among staff and harbors confusion. Be mindful of privacy law and pt confidentiality.

2. Ask for a pt information education sheet on the medications administered

Hope that helps!

Tamla Wells
Critical Care Nursing

Feel free to ask the patient’s physician, nurse, or ICU pharmacist for information regarding any medication given to your loved one. ICU care is complex, and can involve multiple medications. Nurses can print “patient friendly” medication handouts. These handouts contain simple terms to explain details about medication, such as its indications, side-effects, precautions, etc.

The public is often unaware of the intense pharmacology classes and testing, that nurses must undergo to obtain their nursing license. For patient safety, according to the five rights of medication administration, nurses must be knowledgeable of medications they are administering to patients. Therefore, nurses are willing and able to answer questions about their patient’s medications for you. 


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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.