What Does "Critical Condition" Mean?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 17 2001 6:37 PM

What Does "Critical Condition" Mean?

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Not all hospitals follow the AHA guidelines strictly. They're advisory guidelines, after all, not regulations. George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., for example, uses its own definitions. GW Hospital defines critical condition as "uncertain prognosis, vital signs are unstable or abnormal, there are major complications, and death may be imminent." Many hospitals use the term "treated and released" to describe patients who received treatment but were not admitted. And the phrase "critical but stable" is in widespread use, though it's not recommended by the AHA. The phrase is an attempt to communicate that some patients' conditions are more "critical" than others.

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Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Pensacola, Fla., where Jessie Arbogast is being treated, doesn't follow AHA terminology strictly. "I try to stick to those four, but sometimes when I call to check, the doctor will say 'stable' or 'guarded,' and so that's what you have relay," hospital spokesman Mike Burke says. "Someone's medical condition is a complex matter. It's really unrealistic to give a one-word description of how they're doing, but because of restrictions we're under, that's what we do."

Explainer thanks Marti Harris ofGeorgeWashingtonUniversityHospital, LeRoy Tillman of theWashingtonHospitalCenter, and Mike Burke of the Sacred Heart Health System.

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