Raise your hand if you’ve ever walked into a hospital and felt like you might as well be in a foreign country. Yeah, us too! Maybe you don’t know what these words mean, what the abbreviations stand for, or how to speak the language. It's common to feel this way as a patient, visitor, new healthcare provider, or even an experienced clinician in a new facility.
There’s a ton of new terminology to learn, and the same type of hospital department can have a slightly different name, abbreviation, or acronym at another hospital. Let’s look at some of the most common hospital units and decode what all those abbreviations mean!
ASU: Ambulatory Surgery Unit
Patients in an ASU are preparing for or recovering from surgery in a hospital, but will not have to remain in the hospital overnight. Nurses who staff these units are perioperative nurses and specialize in getting patients ready for surgery, caring for them afterward, and teaching them what they need to know before they go home. ASUs may also be called same-day surgery units or day surgery units.
ED or ER: Emergency Department or Emergency Room
Patients come to the ED for health problems that require emergent or immediate attention, such as accidents, injuries, allergic reactions, heart attacks, strokes, and more. Once staff in the ED assess and treat you, they will decide if you are okay to go home or if you need to be admitted to an inpatient hospital unit for more care. Depending on how sick their patients are, emergency department nurses generally care for one to four patients at a time.
Large hospitals may have different emergency departments for level of care or different areas within the emergency department. Here’s a quick glance at some of them.
A fast-track section of the ED is for patients who need to be seen, but will have a quick turnaround time. More straightforward injuries requiring a few sutures, or problems with quick fixes are often seen here. A fast-track area is similar to urgent care.
Larger hospital facilities may separate their EDs into adult and pediatric areas. This allows each population to quickly get the specialized care they need.
Triage is the ED's front desk. When you first come to the ED, you are evaluated by a triage nurse. From there, you may be taken right back to an ED room, especially if you are very sick. If you are not very sick, or the ED is very busy, you may have to wait in the waiting room to be seen by the ED staff.
ICU: Intensive Care Unit
Intensive Care Units, or ICUs, are specialized units where the sickest patients are cared for by ICU, or critical care nurses. These nurses often have between one and two patients to look after, and their patients require near-constant attention and care. They may have breathing tubes, be on ventilators, or receive high-risk medications that require close monitoring.
A smaller hospital may have one ICU, whereas a larger healthcare facility may have several divided by specialty. Some hospitals refer to ICUs as CCUs, or critical care units. However, in some facilities, CCU stands for coronary care unit, not critical care unit, so watch out for variances between facilities! Here are some of the different types of adult ICUs.
Patients in burn ICUs need specialized care for significant burn injuries that affect a large area of their body. Burn ICUs are very specialized and are often located in large hospitals and medical centers.
CICU or CVICU: Cardiac or Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit
Patients admitted to CICUs have life-threatening conditions affecting their hearts. They may have an abnormal heart rhythm or a heart attack, be having heart surgery, or be in heart failure. Cardiovascular nurses with advanced training in intensive care work in CICUs. CICUs may also be called CCUs, or Coronary Care Units. Often, once a patient no longer needs ICU-level care, they will be moved to the Cardiac Progressive Care Unit where they can continue to recover.
CTICU: Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit
This unit is very similar to a CICU, and the terms are often used interchangeably. In addition to caring for critical heart problems, CTICU staff care for all critical problems of the chest or thoracic cavity, including the esophagus and lungs.
MICU: Medical Intensive Care Unit
In hospital terminology, the word “medical” encompasses a wide range of problems that are not surgical in nature. For example, MICU nurses may care for critically ill patients with breathing problems, infections, or liver or kidney failure.
Neuro ICU: Neurological Intensive Care Unit
Neuro ICU patients are critically ill because of a stroke, head injury, brain infection, seizure disorder, or other neurologic problem. This unit is typically not abbreviated to ensure it doesn't get mixed up with the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.
SICU: Surgical Intensive Care Unit
If a patient requires intensive care after a wide range of surgical procedures, they may be admitted to this type of specialized intensive care unit directly from the Operating Room.
TICU: Trauma Intensive Care Unit
A patient needing intensive care after a traumatic injury, such as a car accident, will be admitted to a TICU. In some facilities, SICUs and TICUs may be combined into one unit, known as a STICU or surgical-trauma intensive care unit.
L&D: Labor and Delivery
Labor and delivery units are where mothers labor and give birth. Labor and delivery nurses work in this specialized unit. Depending on the facility, these units may also be called OB or obstetrics units.
Many labor and delivery units have their own surgical suites and do not rely on the main hospital OR for cesarean sections. After the baby is born, the baby and mother may stay in this unit to recover, or they may be transferred to a mother-baby unit (MBU) until they are well enough to go home.
Med-Surg: Medical-Surgical Unit
Med-surg nurses care for patients with a wide range of medical problems or who are recovering from surgical procedures. They work with patients who are sick enough to be in the hospital, but do not require the intensive care and monitoring found in the ICU. Depending on the facility, nurses here may care for four or more patients at a time.
Hospital staff may casually refer to med-surg units as “the floor” or “the patient floor." Larger facilities may have separate medical and surgical units, and there may be different, specialized types of each. Medical patients may have lung problems, breathing problems, or infections, while surgical patients are recovering from a wide range of surgical procedures.
MBU: Mother-Baby or Newborn Nursery
Mother-baby staff specializes in the care and recovery of moms and newborns after delivery but before they go home. A mother-baby unit may also have a newborn nursery, where newborn-specific care, such as vaccinations and routine health screenings are done. Mother-baby nurses typically care for three to four “couplets,” or pairs of newborns and mothers at a time.
NICU: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
The NICU is a specialized ICU for critically ill or premature infants. These patients will often need help breathing and eating for the first days to months of their lives and may require ventilators, supplemental oxygen, feeding tubes, and other specialized care. NICU nurses typically care for one to three patients at a time, depending on the acuity and needs of their patients.
Onc or Heme/Onc Unit: Oncology or Hematology/Oncology Unit
Patients on oncology and hematology units have various types of cancer or blood disorders, such as sickle-cell disease. The patients on these units often have weak immune systems and are immunocompromised. The specialized oncology nurses who care for them receive advanced training and certification in chemotherapy and other high-risk medication administration, as well as infection prevention techniques.
Ortho: Orthopedics Unit
Orthopedics units and the nurses on these units are dedicated to caring for patients recovering from injuries resulting in broken bones or injured muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Ortho nurses care for four or more patients at a time and receive specialized training in wound care, dressing changes, movement, and other care specific to these injuries.
OR: Operating Room
The operating room (OR) is where surgeries and procedures of all kinds happen. A wide range of staff works on this specialized unit, including OR nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and more. OR nurses may care for many patients in a day but care for just one patient at a time due to the close attention and monitoring required while in surgery. Patients are typically in pre-op before surgery and go to PACU, or the post-anesthesia care unit, afterward.
There are a few procedural areas that can work closely with and are often found near the OR, but are slightly different. These specialized nurses often care for just one patient at a time during a procedure, and specialists, surgeons, and anesthesiologists also work here. Here’s a closer look at them:
Cath Lab: Cardiac Catheterization Lab
Here, specialized staff performs cardiac catheterization. This procedure can evaluate or diagnose heart function, repair heart valves or blood vessels, or treat a heart attack. Cardiovascular nurses with specialized training work here, along with cath lab techs.
Endoscopy allows doctors to visualize or look inside certain areas of the body, generally by inserting an endoscope directly into a hollow organ. These procedures are often used to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal disorders.
IR: Interventional Radiology
Nurses who work in IR assist in a wide range of radiology procedures. Interventional radiology uses real-time radiology imaging to help in both the treatment and diagnosis of a wide range of illnesses.
PACU: Post Anesthesia Care Unit or Recovery Room
In this unit, patients are cared for by specialized staff as they wake up from surgery. These patients are under the care of PACU nurses, and they require closer monitoring of their vital signs and physiologic functions before they are well enough to go home or back to their hospital room. These nurses may care for one or more patients at a time, depending on what stage of recovery they are in.
Peds: Pediatric Unit
Pediatric units specialize in caring for infants, children, and teenagers who are sick enough to need to be in the hospital but not sick enough to need pediatric intensive care. Pediatric nurses often care for up to four patients at a time. Larger children’s hospitals may have many specialized pediatric units, including medical pediatric units, surgical pediatric units, peds oncology units, and more, whereas a primarily adult hospital will generally have just one or two pediatric units.
PICU: Pediatric Intensive Care Unit
Staff in a PICU care for critically ill infants, children, and teenagers with a wide range of life-threatening problems. These children require ICU level of care and often need advanced monitoring, specialized equipment, and high-risk medications to treat their critical illnesses. PICU nurses often care for one to two patients at a time.
PCICU: Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit
A PCICU is a type of PICU that specializes in caring for infants, children, and teenagers with cardiac problems or needing cardiac surgery. PCICUs are commonly found in larger children’s hospitals.
PNU: Prenatal Unit or Antenatal Unit
A PNU may be part of a labor and delivery unit or its own dedicated unit. These units are often found in large hospitals that specialize in high-risk deliveries and have neonatal ICUs. The staff includes prenatal and obstetrics nurses who specialize in fetal monitoring and the care of women who need to be hospitalized before delivering their newborns due to the risk of complications.
Pre-Op: Pre-Operative Unit
This unit is similar to an ambulatory or day surgery unit. Patients in a pre-op unit receive care to ensure they are ready for surgery. A pre-op nurse specializes in pre-surgery care and education. After surgery, the patient goes to a separate PACU or recovery room.
Psych: Psychiatric Unit
Psych, or psychiatric nurses specialize in the care of patients with mental health issues. In larger facilities, there may be several different types of psychiatric units, such as a psych ED (psychiatric emergency department) and separate adult and pediatric psych units.
Rehab: Rehabilitation Unit
Rehab units are dedicated to rehabilitation after an illness or injury. Patients who were very ill or had a stroke or injury may need rehab in the hospital before they can go home. Rehab nurses and therapists help their patients relearn to speak, eat, swallow or walk, move, and care for themselves again. Often these patients work very closely with occupational therapists and physical therapists. Patients may receive acute rehabilitation in the hospital before they go to a long-term care facility for further rehab care.
RCU: Renal Care Unit or Dialysis Unit
Renal or dialysis units care for hospitalized patients with an injury or illness affecting their kidneys. These patients may need a special type of treatment, called dialysis, that RCU nurses and dialysis nurses are trained to do. Staffing ratios can change depending on the type of dialysis involved.
SDU: Step-Down Unit
Step-down units are the stepping stone between ICUs and general care units. They are for patients who are no longer ill enough to require ICU-level care, but are still too sick or complex for general medical, surgical, or telemetry units. Step-down nurses often care for up to three patients at a time.
Depending on the facility, step-down units can be called TCUs (Transitional Care Units), PCUs (Progressive Care Units), IMCUs (Intermediate Care Units), or CDUs (Clinical Decision Units). Larger hospitals may have specialty-specific step-down units, such as cardiac, neuro, or pediatric step-down units.
Tele: Telemetry Units
Telemetry is a special type of cardiac monitoring that is not available on all hospital floors. Patients here wear a cardiac monitor, and their heart rate and rhythm are visible at a central station for telemetry nurses and telemetry techs to see at all times. Patients here may have a heart condition or another condition that requires closer monitoring of their heart rate and rhythm.
Sometimes medical, surgical, and telemetry units are combined and are referred to as a Med-Surg-Tele Unit. It is important to remember that while tele nurses care for medical and surgical patients, not all medical and surgical nurses care for telemetry patients.
Hospital Departments and Units Decoded
We know that’s a lot of information, and we hope that this guide helps you feel more comfortable at your healthcare facility! Hospitals are incredibly specialized, and each hospital department is filled with staff who are uniquely trained and equipped to care for their patients. Use our list as a guide, and remember that there may be variations in names, units, and abbreviations between healthcare facilities. And, if you encounter abbreviations for hospital units and hospital departments that you are unfamiliar with, be sure to ask hospital staff for help!
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