If you or your loved one is in the hospital, you may be struggling to make sense of all the acronyms that represent the different floors and units of the institution.
The following acronyms are frequently used in hospitals to describe where the patient is receiving care before, during, and after surgery. They may vary somewhat between facilities but these are fairly standard in the United States.
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The emergency room, also referred to as the emergency department, is where you’re first seen after a sudden and serious illness or injury. You may arrive at the ER by private transportation or by ambulance.
Care is provided according to the severity of your illness rather than by when you arrived. This is because an individual who’s having a heart attack requires immediate treatment, while those with less serious injuries are able to wait.
The general rule of thumb is that if you can wait to see your own doctor in the morning, your issue is likely not serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. On the other hand, the ER is the perfect place for serious illness and injuries that need immediate attention.
The PACU is the post-anesthesia care unit, which is where you’re taken after surgery to be closely monitored while your anesthesia wears off. You typically only stay in the PACU for a few hours, but you may stay longer depending on the availability of a hospital room or if your condition isn’t stable enough to allow you to be transferred to a regular room to continue your recovery.
The OR, or operating room, is where both inpatient and outpatient surgeries are performed.
Pre-op is short for preoperative, which means before surgery. This area is sometimes called same-day surgery, outpatient surgery, or preoperative holding and is where you wait prior to your procedure. Often this is where any necessary medications or intravenous (IV) access are initiated.
ICU, or the intensive care unit, is where you’re sent if you require close monitoring. The ICU is also referred to as a critical care unit. Nurses in the ICU typically have just one or two patients, so you’re able to be constantly monitored while there. In most facilities, if you require a ventilator to breathe, you’ll be cared for in an ICU.
The NICU may be either the neurological intensive care unit or the neonatal intensive care unit, depending on whether the facility treats adults or children. In some facilities, the neurological ICU is referred to as NCC, for neurological critical care.
The neurological ICU is where you’re taken if you have a serious brain-related illness. Patients in the neuro ICU may have illnesses ranging from strokes or seizure disorders to traumatic brain injuries, or they may be recovering from brain or spine surgery.
The neonatal ICU is where newborns are taken for intensive care. Premature infants or very sick babies are treated in the NICU where they can receive constant monitoring.
The PICU is a pediatric intensive care unit where children receive critical care. Depending on the facility, newborns may be treated in a PICU or a neonatal ICU. Smaller facilities may have a PICU only, while larger facilities may offer both a PICU and a neonatal ICU.
SICU, or surgical intensive care unit, is where you receive care if you’re critically ill and in need of surgery or recovering from surgery. You may be too unstable to be treated on a regular nursing floor, or ICU-level monitoring may be the protocol for a particular procedure. This unit is managed by physicians that have a background in surgery.
The medical intensive care unit, or MICU, is for care if you’re critically ill with a medical problem such as a chronic disease like COPD or diabetes, or if you’re acutely ill and, for example, develop a serious infection. MICU patients are managed by physicians who have a background in internal medicine.
The trauma intensive care unit is where you’re treated if you’ve suffered a blunt impact. Injuries such as those received in serious falls, car crashes, and other types of impact-related accidents may be treated in this area.
CCU, or the coronary/cardiac care unit, is a specialized intensive care unit for cardiac issues. If you have heart disease, experienced a cardiac event such as a heart attack, or if you’re recovering from open-heart surgery, you may be treated in the CCU. In some facilities, a separate open-heart recovery unit may be utilized for surgical patients.
An open-heart recovery unit is where you’re treated after heart surgery. You don’t typically go to the post-anesthesia care unit after surgery; instead, you’re taken right to the open-heart recovery unit to be monitored.
A step-down unit is an area where an intermediate level of care is provided. This means that you don’t need intensive care level treatment, but you’re not stable enough to go to a standard floor. There are many types of step-down units, ranging from surgical step-down to cardiac step-down.
For example, you may initially be treated in the surgical intensive care unit, but when you improve, you might receive care in the surgical step-down unit before being treated on the floor.
The oncology unit is where you receive therapies intended to improve or cure your cancer. These treatments may include radiation and chemotherapy.
A palliative or hospice unit is where end-of-life care is provided if you have a life-limiting illness, which may or may not be cancer-related. Hospice and palliative care focus on providing comfort and quality of life. In some facilities, oncology and hospice/palliative care may be provided in the same unit.
“The Floor” Unit
A floor unit in a hospital is where you’re cared for when you don’t require especially close monitoring. On the floor, your vital signs may be taken every few hours rather than being constantly monitored as you would be in the critical care areas. You may be able to walk to the bathroom with or without assistance and you’re usually able to feed yourself and perform some self-care.
If you’re on the floor, you may not be quite well enough to go home, or you may need medications that have to be administered through an IV. You may be on the floor to have tests done, such as blood tests or imaging tests, or maybe you’re getting stronger after an illness and you’re waiting for the care team to determine that you’re able to safely return home.
Floor units vary widely by name. They may be referred to by location, such as 7 south, which means the south wing of the 7th floor. Others may be referred to by specialty, such as orthopedics, meaning that patients with bone issues are being treated in the area.
This area may be in the hospital or a separate facility, depending on your location. Rehabilitation is where you go to increase your strength so that you can go home.
These floors often provide as much as six hours a day of physical and occupational therapy with the intention of helping you recover the strength and function that you need to be mostly independent in your daily life.
This could mean learning how to transfer from a wheelchair to your bed or car seat. Or it may mean strengthening your muscles enough to walk again after spending an extended period of time in the hospital.
A Word From Verywell
Hospital staff becomes so accustomed to using abbreviations and lingo that they often forget that the average person doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification about the information you’re being given.
It’s an excellent reminder to doctors, nurses, and other staff that they may not be providing information in a way that’s easily understood. In general, if you’re being told something in a hospital that you don’t understand, be sure to ask more questions until you do.