Acute or chronic? Making sense of medical jargon when visiting our emergency departments

Westmead Hospital clinical nurse consultant, Margaret Murphy.

Medical terminology is difficult for most people to understand.  It’s even more difficult when you’re at the emergency department (ED) and asked a lot of medical questions.

There is one question often asked by patients...

What’s the difference between acute and chronic conditions?

Westmead Hospital clinical nurse consultant, Margaret Murphy gives a quick guide to explain the differences.

Acute conditions

“What does it mean when we ask you if have an acute condition?  It means we want to find out if you have anything wrong with some of your organs. This is usually to do with your heart, lungs, kidneys, brain or immune system,” Margaret said.

“These conditions can be serious and need immediate action.

“Acute conditions are often undiagnosed.  This means the cause of the condition is unknown. We will not know until a medical assessment is carried out.”

Some examples of acute conditions include:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Pneumonia
  • Appendicitis

It can also include broken bones or injury sustained from a car accident. It could also be a chest infection or bleeding in the brain.

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions are when a patient is aware of their pre-existing condition.

They have a diagnosis of their symptom or illness and are receiving ongoing care. These conditions are usually managed by a specialised doctor.

“Sometimes patients with a chronic condition visit our EDs with a new illness. It’s important for us to know what that pre-existing chronic condition is. It may affect the treatment they need for this new illness,” she said.

“For patients with chronic conditions the focus is on lifelong management.  This is to slow any changes and manage the symptoms.”

Some examples of chronic conditions include renal, respiratory or cardiac failure and diabetes. It can also include epilepsy, cystic fibrosis and peripheral vascular disease.

“It’s vital that we identify critically ill patients with acute or chronic conditions in the ED. This is so we can give the right care,” Margaret said.

WSLHD Emergency Departments assess and treat patients in order of clinical urgency. This involves assessment of the patient’s medical history and vital signs. The patient’s condition is given an urgency category and then treatment starts.

Emergency departments are for emergencies.  For less severe symptoms please visit your local GP, medical centre or pharmacist.

There is also a 24-hour service available, HealthDirect. Health professionals provide advice on health matters.  To contact, please call 1800 022 222.

In a life-threatening emergency, please call 000.