Jack Roush in Serious, but Stable Condition: What does that mean?

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Often in news reports we hear of patients being in “serious” or “critical” condition, such as today’s report that NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, who was involved in a plane accident in Wisconsin, is in “serious but stable condition.” Terms used to describe medical conditions are often done so to describe two aspects of a patient’s state – condition and prognosis.

The terms used to describe a patient’s medical condition is not meant to be a diagnosis, but a general guide to the patient’s status as determined by several factors. The American Hospital Association guidelines advise US doctors and hospital spokespersons to use one of the following one-word conditions to describe a patient’s condition.

• Undetermined – this usually means that the patient is still being assessed by health professionals, who do not currently have enough information to formally declare a patient’s medical state.

• Good – A patient’s vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Vital signs are a measure of some of the most basic body functions, such as body temperature, pulse rate (heart rate), blood pressure, and respiratory rate. The patient is conscious and comfortable, and indicators for a good outcome are excellent.

• Fair – A patient’s vital signs are again stable and within normal limits and he or she is conscious, but possibly uncomfortable, such as when pain is uncontrolled. Indicators for a positive outcome are favorable.

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• Serious – A patient is serious conditions does not have vital signs that are stable or within normal limits. The patient himself is acutely ill and indicators are questionable.

• Critical – a patient in critical condition is not usually conscious and is gravely ill. Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Overall, the indicators for a good outcome are uncertain but often unfavorable.

A patient may also be given a prognosis of short-term prognosis. The AHA guidelines stresses that “stable” should not be used solely as a description of a patient’s medical state, but it is often used to mean that no immediate change is expected.

Another term that is often used in news reports Is “treated and released”. This means that a patient was brought into a hospital, received treatment, and then released without an in-patient stay.

These general, often vague terms are mostly used as an effort to provide information while protecting a patient’s privacy when being treated medically. The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides federal protections for personal health information and only permits disclosure only to authorized persons for important purposes, such as patient care.

Sacred Heart Children’s 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."

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