Acute Care

Last Updated: January 2, 2022

Written by the Open Caregiving Team. Editorial review by Joyce O. Murphy RN, MSN.

What is acute care?

Acute care is when someone needs immediate medical attention for an illness or injury. This is often to make their condition more stable, as when someone is having trouble breathing because of asthma or the flu. Sometimes it is because a person is having mental health troubles.

What is the goal of acute care?

The term “acute” makes this type of care stand out from others like primary care or chronic care. The goal of acute care is to improve health right away.

When you see your primary doctor, you get that care in a primary care setting. Chronic care is when your loved one is receiving home care or nursing home care for a long-term condition.

What are examples of acute care?

Acute care happens in several types of healthcare settings, such as:

  • A hospital’s emergency room (ER). An example is when someone has extreme abdominal pain and the ER doctor diagnoses appendicitis.
  • A health center or doctor’s office when a person’s condition is found to be serious. An example is when a person’s blood pressure is taken and found to be dangerously high.
  • Emergency first responder care for someone in any kind of accident.

A change in a person’s health may mean they need acute care. Here are some examples:

  • The need for acute care may be found when a person is getting ready for elective surgery. Their lab or other tests reveal a health problem that might delay surgery.
  • A baby goes to the doctor for a well baby checkup and is dehydrated. The baby goes to the hospital for intravenous care.
  • A person with a mental illness has a bad reaction to a new medication. They have a short stay at the hospital to become stable.

What is acute care rehab?

Acute care rehab is when a person has received medical or surgical treatment to improve their health. As a patient, they then participate in acute care rehabilitation to regain strength and function. They may have several therapies to help them prepare to go home. Examples include:

  • Exercise and activities following joint replacement surgery.
  • Medication, diet, and activity adjustments after heart surgery.
  • Observation with medication and behavioral therapy following a mental health crisis.
  • Someone who has had a stroke and needs physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

What is the difference between acute care and critical care?

Acute care for a patient is less involved and can be offered in a shorter time frame than critical care. The need for acute care may mean you have a short visit with the doctor or hospital stay. Examples include:

  • Going to the emergency room for a sprained ankle.
  • You visit your doctor and are found to have pneumonia. Your blood oxygen is low enough that you’re admitted to the hospital for a couple of days for treatment and observation.

Critical care is provided for a critically ill or injured person. They are admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) or critical care unit (CCU) for continued observation and testing.

  • The CCU may be a cardiac care unit designated for heart patients. This is the case for someone who had a heart attack and is waiting for surgery.
  • Some hospitals have both medical and surgical ICUs. This is because of community size and the level of specialty care.
  • These patients are monitored closely with machines and many healthcare staff.

What is an acute care facility?

An acute care facility is one that provides a variety of acute services, such as emergency care for all types of health problems and injuries.

  • People who go to the ER may go home after their visit. Or they may be admitted, depending on their health status.
  • In some cases, a person is moved quickly from the ER to a large hospital with many specialist doctors.

What is post acute care?

Post acute care is when a person needs continued care for their health condition. This means they will move from a hospital to home or another facility. The options include:

  • A person returns home with the care and support of Home Health Care services.
  • They move to a long-term care hospital (LTCH).
  • Inpatient rehabilitation facilities (IRFs), where a person’s health can improve with continued care. This includes therapies as well as health and personal care.
  • Skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) that care for people who need skilled nursing care or therapy services. SNFs are often part of a Nursing Home.

How do I pay for acute care?

Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurances all have options for paying for acute care.

  • Each has limitations to what they will pay for. In some cases, they will not.
  • It is best to talk with your health insurer to learn what is paid.
  • You can talk with a hospital social worker or billing office for information if paying for acute care is a financial challenge.

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