Acute care is the exact opposite of long-term care or chronic care services. Patients receive active but short-term treatment for a severe or life-threatening injury, illness, routine health problems, recovery from surgery, or acute exacerbation of chronic illnesses. Typically, the goal of acute care is to restore the health and stability of the patient.

Acute care settings often include hospitals, freestanding Urgent Care clinics, and ambulatory surgical clinics. There are many different areas where acute care is practiced:

  • Emergency care
  • Urgent care
  • Trauma care
  • Critical care
  • Neonatal and pediatric intensive care
  • Rehabilitative care
  • Psychiatric acute care
  • Acute care surgery

As a nurse in acute care, you will be responsible for time-sensitive illnesses and injury, rapid intervention to prevent death or disability, and restoring optimal health to your patients. In these types of settings, patients can often decline quickly and without warning. Therefore, acute care nurses must be able to react quickly and efficiently during high stress situations. Emotions can run high during these events, especially with severe or life-threatening emergencies, so they must be able to remain professional while practicing empathy for patients and their families, too.

Acute care nurses use just about all the skills you can imagine to care for these patients. One patient may need labs drawn, an IV placed for fluids, and an assessment every hour, while another patient is coding and needing CPR with a rapid response team to bring them back to life. Acute care nursing means you are using your critical thinking skills, prioritizing your patients based on acuity of illness or injury. Once the patient is stable, they will usually be discharged. If the patient is unable to be restored to relatively better health, they are typically transferred to long-term care or an area better suited to treat their condition or injury, such as a rehabilitation center.

Learn more about acute care nurse practitioners.

Psychiatric acute care can be necessary for mental illnesses or situations that involve rapid intervention. Crisis centers, emergency rooms, and psychiatric clinics are where these patients would likely be treated. There are many instances where a patient may find themselves needing acute psychiatric intervention. Mental disorders such as suicidal ideation, drug or alcohol overdose, severe manic or depressive episodes that typical treatment does not alleviate, or initial diagnosis for severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia after severe episodes of hallucinations or catatonia. Acute care nurses taking care of patients in this atmosphere must have tough skin, as it can be difficult to deal with patients when they are not acting like themselves. Empathy will go a long way in this aspect of acute care.

Rehabilitative acute care is typical after surgery to assist patients in their recovery quickly, within a few days. This can be orthopedic surgery, like a hip replacement, or an amputation. Since these patients have to learn new skills to thrive in their homes after recovery, the acute rehab nurse will assist on daily activities, teaching the patient how to care for their dressings and restore independence.

Acute care nursing has many atmospheres to choose from and different acuity levels to work in. You will always be learning as an acute care nurse!

Amanda Bucceri Androus, RN, BSN
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