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Critical Care vs Intensive Care: What’s the Difference?

medical professionalIn the air medical community, it’s naturally impossible to avoid constantly hearing the terms critical care and intensive care. This is because air ambulance teams exist to ensure that patients receive critical/intensive care while in “air medical transport” to facilities where they can continue to receive this high level of care, without missing a beat (sometimes literally).

Air ambulance services proudly declare that they provide intensive care to critical-care patients. Others accurately describe themselves as “flying intensive care units.”

Believe it or not, some seasoned air medical professionals still find themselves at a loss to explain exactly what the differences, if any, are between these concepts. Is there a difference at all? In the American healthcare system (and in American air ambulances), the answer is: not really.

Before you head off on another air medical transport, take a minute to learn more about these two frequently-used, often-misunderstood terms.

Critical Care

In general terms, the concept of critical care refers to a type of patient care where the patient’s life is threatened. Critical care patients typically require close monitoring, medication, and advanced medical equipment to keep their body functioning while professional care is administered. Examples of common calls in the air medical world where critical care is required include:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Stroke
  • Major traumas
    • Burns
    • Injuries from accidents
    • Gunshots
  • Poisoning
  • Pneumonia
  • Surgical Complications

Patients may remain in a critical care unit (CCU) for days, weeks, or months depending on their specific conditions and recovery progress.

Intensive Care

Hypodermic Needle side viewDepending on exactly whom you ask in the air medical field, you may receive differing responses about which, if either, of these terms actually encompasses the other.

For example, some healthcare professionals consider critical care to be a type of care delivered under the “umbrella” of intensive care, and vice versa. Does it really matter in practice? Again, not really.

The same confusion between these two terms exists within the air medical world. However, in general, the idea of “intensive” care may be considered to be interchangeable with the idea of “critical” care.


In American hospitals, an intensive care unit and a critical care unit can generally be considered to mean the same thing. Air ambulances and air medical services will generally use these terms interchangeably.

Beyond this, there are many specialized types of ICUs that provide critical care to specific types of patients or to patients with specific health conditions.

For example, a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) specializes in providing critical care to infants and newborns. A CICU (Cardiac Intensive Care Unit) or CCU (coronary care unit) is a section of a hospital that specializes in providing care for patients who have suffered heart attacks or other cardiac conditions requiring the constant monitoring that critical (or intensive) care provides.

As is apparent simply by looking at the names of these units, intensive and critical often refer to the same concept in American hospitals and in the American air ambulance world.