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Is Acute Care Nursing the same as Critical Care Nursing?

9th June 21

Many people think patients with life-threatening or serious conditions are cared for by the same team of health professionals. Assuming that roles in acute care nursing are the same as critical care nursing for instance. While there are lots of similarities, these two areas of nursing have distinct differences.

Both roles require nurses to look after patients under intense conditions. Patient conditions can deteriorate rapidly in either environment and both types of nurses must be poised to react instantly and decisively. But as an acute care nurse, the conditions you treat and the duties you’ll perform will be considerably different to those of a critical care nurse.

If you’re considering nursing in a capacity dealing with severe patient needs, it’s best to clarify the different disciplines involved. That way, you can be sure of where you see yourself in nursing ahead of starting your learning journey.

Find out more about what both types of care involve and the duties you’d perform as a nurse within them. Plus, how you can get started in either role below.  

What is Acute Care?

Acute care is classed as secondary care. As it’s what a patient is referred to after being seen by a primary care professional. You will go into acute care if you need to see someone with more specialist knowledge. And this is typically when a patient has been diagnosed with a short term but serious condition.

The confusion surrounding acute care is often because it takes place in areas providing other types of emergency care. This could be within Accident & Emergency, Intensive Care or Neonatal Care Units. So, nurses within these environments can be hard to distinguish from others that work within them.

As an acute care nurse, you’ll work with patients with many severe but defined medical conditions. From serious injuries and chronic illnesses to strokes and infectious diseases. These patients may well be post-critical and they could even require critical care should their situation deteriorate during their time in acute care. Further adding to the blurred lines between these types of care.

What does an Acute Care Nurse Do?

As an acute care nurse, you’ll work with patients who need either secondary or tertiary care i.e. specialised and intensive care. This depends on the severity of their condition.

You’ll need to assess and monitor them, all the while inspecting vital signs and arranging any necessary diagnostic tests. You will work closely with both doctors and the wider acute care team. Developing patient care plans and delivering on the elements involved.

Your duties can include:

  • Administering intravenous fluid
  • Ensuring patients receive any medication required
  • Closely monitoring and adjusting pain relief medication in accordance with patient needs
  • Checking various equipment like monitors and ventilators regularly to ensure it’s all working correctly
  • Treating wounds
  • Arranging patient transfers
  • Putting the patient’s families in contact with support services as required

The Skills You’ll Need

As you can work in a range of environments providing acute care and helping patients with various ailments, days are rarely the same. As such, you’ll need a certain combination of skills and qualities for this line of work.

Sometimes you’ll be the first person on the scene when your patient’s condition takes a turn for the worse. So you’ll need to have high level first aid skills and be able to think on your feet when the time comes to use them. You will also need to be able to manage patients who are getting better. Providing the care and support they and their families need as they come to leave the ward.

You’ll need to be caring, compassionate and patient to work with patients of all backgrounds and abilities. With excellent communication skills to work with each effectively and make sure they understand the nature of their care. As the patient’s condition evolves you need to be prepared to think quickly and adapt to changing demands.

learndirect - Is Acute Care Nursing the same as Critical Care Nursing?

What is Critical Care?

Critical care is that what is provided to people with immediate emergency healthcare needs. It can be referred to interchangeably as the ‘intensive care’ and there is no difference between the two. Both specialise in the monitoring and treatment of patients who need round the clock care.

Sometimes, a hospital with an intensive care unit will have a separate cardiac care unit, which is also a critical care unit. However, the cardiac care unit will only provide critical care for patients experiencing heart problems. Whereas the general critical care or intensive care unit will provide care for patients with all manner of life-threatening conditions.

Patients needing treatment within the cardiac care unit have typically suffered from:

  • A heart attack
  • Heart failure after which they need close monitoring
  • Serious heart diseases like arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy or unstable angina
  • Heart infection
  • Are recovering from heart surgery

Cardiac patients can also experience additional conditions which stem from their heart problems. This requires the cardiac care unit to manage these problems too. They can include:

  • Infections
  • Kidney failure
  • Respiratory failure
  • Sepsis

Patients needing treatment within the more generic critical care unit have experienced other life-threatening events. These can include anything from an organ transplant to major trauma, severe burns, the inability to breathe or organ failure.

As such, the equipment used within critical care units can be extensive. So critical care nurses need to be adept with using things like:

  • Blood flow meters
  • Blood gas analysers
  • Cardiac output measurement systems
  • Cardiac ultrasound
  • Catheters and intravenous (IV) lines
  • Dialysis machines
  • Electrocardiogram machines
  • Monitoring systems
  • Portable X-ray machines
  • Pulse oximeters
  • Temperature controlling systems
  • Ventilators

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

As a critical care nurse, you will provide more dedicated care to just one or two patients. This is because their needs are far more severe, and they require constant monitoring. You’ll be performing complex assessments and implementing intensive interventions and therapies. Their condition can drastically change in a split second. As such, you’ll need to be able to act and update their care plan swiftly in line with their needs.

Besides these important tasks, you will also act as an advocate for your patients. Supporting and respecting the rights, beliefs and values of those who are critically ill or injured.

Other duties can include:

  • Administering medications through injections, intravenous tubes, gastric tubes and other methods
  • Cleaning and dressing wounds
  • Evaluating vital signs
  • Identifying patient needs and creating care plans that meet them
  • Infusing blood products
  • Monitoring patient reactions
  • Tracking life support equipment like heart monitors

The Skills You’ll Need

The nature of this environment can encourage frantic and desperate behaviour from concerned family members and conscious patients. You’ll need to remain calm in the face of any scenario to reassure and support all parties concerned. All the while performing your duties promptly and efficiently.

You’ll also be dealing with a broad range of healthcare professionals and concerned friends and family members in a highly charged environment. As such, you’ll need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely and perform all duties quickly. So no time is wasted that could otherwise be spent saving patient lives.   

learndirect - Is Acute Care Nursing the same as Critical Care Nursing?

Get Qualified as a Nurse

Every nursing role has its challenges. But nurses who solely deal with patients with life-threatening conditions take the stress of high-risk situations in their stride daily.

Both acute care and critical care nursing, therefore, require additional knowledge and training to work in such intense, specialist units. However, to get into either role, you’ll first need to become a registered nurse.

If you’re ready to work towards either one of these career paths, we can help. Our online Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) allows you to meet the entry requirements for an approved nursing degree. There’s no need to study multiple A Levels. And you can be on your way to degree level study within a year.

Find out more about studying nursing online with learndirect, the leading UK distance learning provider, by clicking the link below.

learndirect - Acute and Critical Care Nursing

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