The main difference between an ICU and a regular hospital floor (also sometimes known as Medical/Surgical) is the level of care provided. Nurses and other care practitioners in the medical/surgical field are widely trained across a variety of diseases and illnesses—after all, they deal with all sorts of conditions that require hospitalizations, including recovery from surgery, infectious diseases, and other sensitive conditions. While all nursing specialties require the same basic skill set, medical/surgical nurses must be familiar with a wide-ranging possibility of illnesses and sicknesses, and be familiar with every body system in order to accurately treat and care for patients. They also see more patients on a daily basis, and therefore have a hand in the care of patients with all different types of diseases and conditions, and must make treatment plans in partnership with physicians based on a patients’ specific needs. Medical/surgical nursing is the largest nursing specialty in the United States.
Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses, sometimes known as critical care nurses, deal specifically with patients who have life-threatening health problems or are in immediate recovery from major surgeries, such as open-heart surgery. The ICU offers critical care to patients with severe illnesses and injuries which require close and constant monitoring. Patients in the ICU may include individuals in treatment for serious injuries, those undergoing treatment for grave medical conditions, or patients in recovery from major surgery.
While medical/surgical units have monitoring equipment for patient care, ICU units have quite a bit more monitoring to do. IV tubes, feeding tubes, catheters and breathing machines are just among the few machines that you’ll find on an ICU floor. Procedures may be completed by ICU nurses that medical/surgical nurses are not trained to do, such as insert a central line in a patient, insert a chest tube, and operate a ventilator. ICU nurses are necessary for complex patient cases where a high level of assessment is needed.
At first glance, the two types of treatment can seem interchangeable. It’s true that any licensed nursing professional can assist during an emergency situation, but ICU (sometimes called critical care) nurses and floors are utilized because they offer the highest level of complexity of care. The patient’s life cannot be sustained without interventions from the staff on that floor. Medical/surgical patients, on the other hand, require a high level of care and remain time-sensitive, but do not need as many medical interventions. Patients generally spend a shorter amount of time on medical/surgical units, and a longer amount of time on intensive care units depending on the medical condition.
The American Association of Critical Care Nurses certifies and represents the interest of more than half a million critical care nurses in the United States. They are supposed to provide “intense and vigilant” nursing care to all patients in their care. They must assess the patient, (collect date regarding their health,) diagnose the patient (determine the underlying issue), identify recovery outcomes, define a plan of treatment (often in partnership with a physician), implement that plan (coordinate the care for the patient) and evaluate the effectiveness of that care (seeing if the patient responds to treatment or improves.)
Medical/Surgical nurses are just as educated as critical care nurses, but they do not hold the certification from the AACCN. They provide state of the art clinical care to patients in a normalized hospital setting. At OakBend, we encourage patients to be ambulatory, meaning they get up and around during the day instead of staying laid down in their hospital bed. Patients are encouraged to walk around the floor, socialize with other patients, and participate in social activities that are hosted by the medical/surgical front desk nursing staff. Our Jack and Billie Wendt Acute Care for the Elderly Unit embodies these principles and focuses on complete care of our patient, including meeting their physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs. We bring these concepts to all of our medical/surgical units throughout the hospital.
The care patients receive, whether in the ICU or on a regular hospital floor, will always be tailored to the patient and focused on what that specific patient needs to heal. The qualified nurses and staff will make it their top priority to provide you with care that is appropriate for the diagnosis, and make patients as comfortable as possible in the process.
Dr. Jose Anzaldua
OakBend Medical Group
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.

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