Confusing Medical Conditions: What Do ‘Critical’ And ‘Serious’ Mean?

 

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

It happened twice over the weekend. First, it was announced that MBTA police officer Richard Donohue had advanced from serious to critical condition at Mount Auburn Hospital. (But doesn’t critical sound worse than serious?) Then, yesterday, Boston police commissioner Ed Davis similarly told a press conference that the surviving marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had gone from serious to critical condition, and noted that “serious and critical are interchangeable.”

They are? What exactly do they mean, anyway? And couldn’t we root for the quick recuperation of bombing victims better if we understood? (Follow Massachusetts General Hospital patients’ conditions here.) The Massachusetts Hospital Association kindly provided the definitions below. HIPAA refers to a major federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

HIPAA Updated Guidelines for Releasing Information on the Condition of Patients (provided by the American Hospital Association)

• Undetermined – Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment.
• Good – Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
• Fair – Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
• Serious – Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
• Critical – Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.

Readers? Further questions?

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