Where Am I Going?  The List of Hospital Unit Acronyms Every Nurse Should Know

By Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC

Getting around a new hospital can be confusing, especially for newer nurses who have so much to learn and don’t yet know the acronyms designated for certain areas. If your coworkers are starting to sigh heavily every time you ask another “Where is..” question, never fear; Nurse.org is here to guide you through the common acronyms used for the specialized units in a hospital. That way, the next time someone tells you the room you’re looking for is in the PICU right across from the MICU, you’ll at least have some clue where you should be going.

In healthcare, there are fairly standard names for different units. For example, PICU refers to a pediatric intensive care unit; however, a NICU could refer to a neonatal intensive care unit or a neurointensive care unit. The following acronyms are the most common in hospitals across the United States.

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ER or ED

The emergency room, also known as the emergency department, is a part of the hospital that specializes in emergency medicine and is considered the front line care of urgent patients in the hospital. Individuals come to the ER either via ambulance or their own private vehicle.

Because of the unplanned nature of the incidents, the staff must be able to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. Emergency departments are intended for injuries or illnesses that are of immediate or life threatening nature. Those that require emergency medicine should not be able to wait to see their primary care provider. As many of us recognize, many uninsured or underinsured patients will often use the ER to receive care that should be provided by a primary care provider.

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ICU, or the intensive care unit, is where critically ill patients are taken care of by specially trained nurses and physicians; the ICU may also be referred to as a critical care unit (CCU).

Patients admitted to this unit require close monitoring and specialized equipment; this equipment will vary according to the patient’s needs but may include ventilators which assist patients with breathing until they are stable enough to breath on their own. Intensive Care Units generally have stricter visitation policies than the remainder of the hospital since these patients require increased periods of rest and are more sensitive to commotion and noise.

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The PACU, or post-anesthesia unit, is a unit of the hospital where patients are taken after surgery to be monitored while anesthesia wears off. Depending on the surgery and severity of the patient, some will go home directly from the PACU, while others will be sent to the intensive care unit or the regular floors for continued monitoring. Visitation is allowed in the PACU, but only after a patient has been stabilized.

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The OR is a standard acronym across the U.S. healthcare system, referring to the operating room. The OR consists of individualized rooms with specific equipment for performing surgeries, including robotic systems. Depending on the type of surgery being performed, an operating room will have equipment designed to satisfy the needs of specific cases.

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CCU or CICU (Cardiac)

CCU and CICU may be interchangeable at some hospitals. The cardiac/coronary care unit or cardiac intensive care unit is a particular ICU that focuses on diseases and surgeries related to the heart.

The types of patients seen in a CCU depend on the cardiac program at the hospital. For example, John Hopkins University Hospital cares for patients with acute myocardial infarction and complications including but not limited to cardiogenic shock, post-infarction angina, and congestive heart failure. Patients suffering from severe cardiomyopathies, valvular heart disease and life-threatening arrhythmias are also treated within this unit.

See how one CCU nurse keeps herself healthy.


The neonatal intensive care unit focuses on newborns with medical issues that demand a high level of close attention and monitoring. In the NICU, a nurse may work with premature and very low birth-weight babies, newborns with spina bifida or other birth defects, babies born addicted to legal or illicit drugs, and other conditions. In such emotionally difficult circumstances, the nursing plan of care must include the care of the newborn’s family.

The NICU should not be confused with the Neuro ICU, which is an intensive care unit with intense concentration on neurological conditions such as stroke and head injury.


The PICU refers to the pediatric intensive care unit. This unit functions the same as an adult ICU; however, it specializes in the treatment of children. These units can be found within a children's hospital or a community/city hospital. Children who are critically ill and need advanced medical treatment are treated in a PICU. Not all hospitals have the capabilities to treat pediatric patients and those patients may need to be transferred to a higher level care facility.

Interested in travel nursing?  See how one PICU nurse made the leap into this rewarding career.


Intensive care units, as previously explained, are for critically ill patients that require close supervision and monitoring; larger hospitals will separate medical and surgical patients. MICU stands for medical intensive care unit, while SICU is a surgical intensive care unit.

MICUs handle a wide array of medical conditions and can treat patients suffering from lung problems, gastrointestinal problems, and blood infections. On the other hand, a SICU will treat patients who recently had surgery or could potentially need surgery. These two units have the same resources as a general ICU.

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Trauma intensive care units are specifically for patients who have suffered a blunt or penetrating trauma; these units are found only at trauma certified hospitals and must maintain higher levels of certifications. The nurses and medical staff that work in a trauma unit are highly trained in trauma cases, and most have additional credentials. Injuries such as those sustained in car crashes, fights, gunshots, and falls would be treated in a TICU.

Next Up: 10 Myth-Busting Facts About the Flu

Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC graduated with a degree in English and journalism before going back to nursing school. After graduating from Villanova University, she became a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse. Currently, she works at one of the leading children’s hospitals in the country in the NICU, PICU, and CICU, as well as working as a Certified Breastfeeding Consultant.


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