Critical Care Physician Career Profile

Critical care physicians, also known as intensivists, are trained to diagnose, monitor and treat patients who have life-threatening illnesses and injuries. They provide care to infants, children and adults who have severe cardiac and respiratory conditions, complications from surgery, trauma to the brain, renal failure and bacterial infections. Critical care physicians work in the intensive care units (ICU) or the progressive care units (PCU) of hospitals.


Critical care physicians extensively monitor a patient’s condition by performing a review of systems (ROS). This involves checking their neurological, cardiac, respiratory, digestive and urinary functions to make sure they are all responding appropriately. If not, physicians will order special medical equipment, such as ventilators, catheters and feeding tubes and prescribe certain medications to help stabilize the patient. Critical care physicians order and interpret laboratory and diagnostic tests, such complete blood counts (CBC), metabolic profiles, echocardiograms, electrocardiograms (EKGs), MRIs, CT scans and x-rays. They also record medical histories, review of system findings and progress notes into the patient’s chart, counsel the patient’s family on how their loved one is progressing and instruct the critical care staff, such as nurses or physicians assistants, on any new therapies or medications being prescribed.

Typical Day

Critical care physicians spend the morning and late afternoon performing medical rounds were they visit with patients, perform a review of systems and order any necessary tests or medications. After rounds, physicians record their findings into the patient’s medical record and consult with other specialists, such as infectious disease or cardiology on the patient’s condition. While on call, critical care physicians may need to make an emergency visit to the hospital or handle a less threatening situation over the phone. Occasionally, critical care physicians are required to travel for conferences or continuing education seminars.


Critical care physician training is a long process that begins with a four-year bachelor’s degree in premedical studies. During junior year, students apply to medical school and take the Medical College Admission Test known as the MCAT exam. If they pass, they then attend a four-year graduate program. During this time, students are required to complete several clinical rotations at a teaching hospital, under the supervision of a licensed physician. After medical school, graduates attend a residency program where they receive specialized training in the areas of critical care medicine, emergency medicine, infectious disease, neonatal ICU care and pediatric ICU care. After residency training is complete, graduates must pass an exam to become board certified in critical care medicine in order to practice.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physicians saw a median annual salary of $339,738, as of 2008.

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