Understanding the Difference Between an ICU Intensivist, Consultant & Specialist

If you have a loved one in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), there will likely be several people who provide various aspects of their care. Nurses will provide basic care while specialists, ICU consultants, and intensivists will work together to provide the plan for their care as well as ongoing special treatment. Whether you are at the hospital to advocate on behalf of your loved one or just want to get updates on their status, it is important that you understand the roles of the people providing their care. Knowing who is doing what will help you direct your questions to the appropriate person. 

Both an ICU consultant and an ICU intensivist are trained to handle people in critical condition. Although they will have a specialty such as pediatrics or cardiology, they are trained to handle all aspects of critical care. This allows either a consultant or intensivist to provide a holistic approach to your loved one's diagnoses and treatment. In training and approach to treatment, consultants and intensivists are similar. However, their role in the ICU is different.   

ICU Intensivist

An ICU intensivist takes on the treatment responsibility for a patient. While the may provide treatment if the patient falls under their specialty, they are more likely to coordinate the treatment of several specialists to provide a multifaceted treatment plan for your loved one. An ICU intensivist will be able to give you the most thorough, specific information about your loved one's outlook and treatment plan. If you have questions and concerns regarding their treatment, you should try to connect with their intensivist first, before talking to any specialists who may be working as part of their treatment.

ICU Consultant

As the name implies, a consultant for ICUs is someone who consults on cases in the ICU. They do not lead the cases, although they may be the primary decision maker for some patients whose treatment falls within their specialty. If your loved one has an ICU consultant working with them, the consultant will be able to provide detailed information about your loved one's specific treatments. They may answer questions about the risks and expected outcomes of certain treatments. However, they may not be able to give you general information about your loved one's overall treatment plan or general outlook. 

In some cases, an ICU consultant may be called in to work together with the intensivist on your loved one's case. In this case, ether the consultant or the intensivist will be well-versed on the entirety of your loved one's treatment, and you can get thorough information from either person.  


Sometimes, specialists who are not ICU consultants will be called in to consult on a case in the ICU. These specialists are usually leaders in their field of medicine but may not have training in the overall treatment necessary during an ICU stay. They may perform specific procedures or give your loved one's intensivist advice on potential treatment options or plans. In general, the specialist will deal directly with the intensivist, and the intensivist will relay vital information to you and your family. However, there may be times when you consult with the specialist and the intensivist together while you are making decisions about your loved one's continued care.

In the ICU, many people will be working to care for your loved one around the clock. While you can ask nurses or doctors that are currently on shift about the status of your loved one, you will get the most valuable information if you maintain contact with their intensivist and any ICU consultants that may be handling their case.