What Is An Acute Medical Unit? (Acute Wards Explained)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

An Acute Medical Unit (AMU) is a vital component of many hospitals in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

However, I’ve got to admit that I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell you exactly what an acute medical unit was until I started working on one as a junior doctor!

An Acute Medical Unit is a specialised ward within a hospital. Its primary purpose is to provide quick and efficient assessment, treatment, and medical care for patients, acting as a bridge between a patient’s general practitioner, the emergency department, and other wards within the hospital.

It functions as a separate department that focuses on short-term care and may be directly linked to the emergency department.

These specialised units aid in managing acute medical conditions, including patients referred to the hospital by their general practitioner or those requiring admission from the emergency department.

What Do Acute Medical Units Do?

Acute Medical Units (AMUs) play a crucial role in hospitals by providing rapid assessment, investigation, and treatment for patients.

These units serve as the first point of entry for patients referred to the hospital for acute medical emergencies by their GP, as well as those needing admission from the emergency department.

AMUs are often the base for the practice of acute internal medicine and have become integral to hospital care.

What Is An Acute Medical Unit Pixel Infographic

The function of AMUs goes beyond initial assessment; they also oversee the patients’ early management and treatment plans.

This includes diagnostic tests, therapeutic interventions, and coordination between different specialties within the hospital to ensure comprehensive care for the patient.

Additionally, AMUs often involve multidisciplinary teams comprising medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals working collaboratively to address patients’ needs.

AMUs differ from critical care units in that they focus on patients who require prompt medical attention but are not critically ill.

This distinction allows these units to cater to the unique needs of patients within different levels of acuity.

Who Goes To An Acute Medical Unit?

An Acute Medical Unit (AMU) serves as the initial point of entry for patients experiencing an acute medical condition requiring hospital admission.

Patients admitted to an acute medical unit typically present with serious, yet non-critical, injuries or illnesses, such as chest infections, burns, concussions, fevers, abdominal pain, or confusion.

Patients referred by their general practitioner or those coming from the emergency department are typically admitted to AMU for rapid assessment, investigation, and treatment.

These patients might include those with acute exacerbations of chronic diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, severe infections, or other urgent medical conditions requiring prompt assessment and management.

The Acute Medical Unit acts as a vital gateway to streamline the admission process and ensure patients receive the appropriate level of care.

By facilitating rapid assessment and treatment, AMUs help improve patient outcomes and reduce the burden on hospital wards and emergency departments.

How Long Do Patients Stay In An AMU?

In terms of the length of stay, patients typically spend no more than 48 hours in an AMU.

This brief duration is intended to minimise disruptions to patient flow while ensuring that individuals receive prompt medical attention.

During this time, patients receive vital assessments and appropriate treatments to stabilise their conditions or address immediate concerns.

A healthcare assistant comforting a patient in hospital
A patient admitted to an Acute Medical Unit

After the initial assessment and treatment, patients may be discharged, transferred to a specialist ward, or referred to another area within the hospital for further investigation or management.

It is important to note that the AMU does not handle surgical patients.

Patients requiring such interventions are directed to relevant surgical departments or theatres, such as cardiothoracics or general surgery.

Who Works On An Acute Medical Unit?

An Acute Medical Unit (AMU) comprises a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals.

The team includes various specialists working together to ensure a smooth and efficient patient care experience.

Medical consultants: These senior doctors oversee patient care and management, collaborating with other members of the team. Their expertise in acute medical conditions is vital in making crucial decisions regarding diagnosis, treatment, and discharge planning.

Junior doctors and trainees: Junior doctors and medical trainees assist consultants in assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients. They continue to learn and gain experience under the supervision of senior doctors.

Nurses: Registered nurses in the AMU are crucial in delivering patient care around the clock. They monitor vital signs, administer medications, and provide support to patients and their families. Their close monitoring enables early identification of changes in the patient’s condition, contributing to prompt interventions.

Allied health professionals: This group includes physiotherapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, and dieticians, among others. They work collaboratively with the medical team to address specific patient needs and contribute to the holistic care of AMU patients.

Administrative staff: The smooth functioning of an AMU also relies on administrative staff handling tasks such as managing patient records, coordinating bed assignments, and handling communications.

The collaborative effort from these professionals ensures that an Acute Medical Unit is equipped to handle medical emergencies, assess patients’ conditions swiftly, and provide appropriate interventions.

Alternative Names For Acute Wards

In its 2007 acute medicine report, the Royal College of Physicians recommended the name “Acute Medical Unit” for this department.

However, many hospitals have opted for different names, with some of the most commonly used ones being:

  • Acute Assessment Unit (AAU)
  • Acute Ward
  • Acute Admissions Unit (AAU)
  • Acute Medical Unit (AMU)
  • Assessment and Diagnostic Unit (ADU)
  • Emergency Assessment Unit (EAU)
  • Emergency Care Unit (ECU)

Benefits Of Acute Medical Units

Hospitals that use acute medical units do benefit from the distinct advantages that they offer:

Patient Outcomes

Patients admitted to AMUs benefit from receiving care from a dedicated multidisciplinary team led by acute medicine physicians.

This approach has been shown to improve the quality and safety of care for patients admitted with acute medical conditions.

Healthcare Efficiency

AMUs contribute significantly to healthcare efficiency as they are designed to alleviate pressures on the emergency department and streamline the patient journey through the hospital.

By serving as the first point of entry for acutely unwell patients, AMUs support more accurate triaging, faster diagnostics, and quicker implementation of appropriate care plans, leading to shorter hospital stays and better resource allocation.

Moreover, the focused care provided in AMUs can help reduce the risk of crowding in emergency departments, allowing them to attend to patients with life-threatening conditions more effectively.

Challenges and Limitations

While AMUs generally run smoothly, they undoubtedly face their own share of challenges:

Resource Management

One challenge faced by acute medical units is effective resource management.

AMUs must balance the need for rapid assessment and treatment with the availability of staff, equipment, and facilities.

This challenge can be exacerbated by fluctuations in patient demand, potentially leading to overcrowding and longer wait times.

Patient Flow

Another limitation of AMUs is managing and optimising patient flow.

The goal is to quickly move patients through the assessment, treatment, and discharge process to help reduce wait times and alleviate pressure on limited resources.

However, achieving efficient patient flow can be difficult due to a variety of factors, such as a high volume of patients needing treatment, delayed test results, or staffing shortages.

To mitigate these challenges, hospitals may implement strategies such as rapid triage and the establishment of designated care pathways to expedite patient care.

Furthermore, the use of technology such as electronic medical records can help streamline workflows and enhance information sharing among medical professionals, ultimately improving patient flow in the AMU.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is acute medicine the same as A&E?

Acute medicine and A&E are not exactly the same but they are closely related. Acute medicine focuses on investigating, diagnosing, and managing acute medical problems while A&E is responsible for treating a wide range of urgent medical conditions, ranging from minor injuries to life-threatening emergencies.

What’s the difference between AMU and ICU?

Although they have similar names, AMU and ICU have very different roles within a hospital. AMU is a ward where patients are referred to by their GPs or directly from A&E, while ICU (intensive care unit) is where some of the sickest patients in a hospital are cared for.

Does acute mean life-threatening?

Acute can refer to the onset of a medical condition or its duration. An acute medical condition typically has a sudden and rapid onset, and its symptoms can be severe and intense. However, not all acute conditions are life-threatening. Some acute conditions may resolve quickly with appropriate treatment.

Final Thoughts

I absolutely loved my time working on the Acute Medical Unit at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth. It was actually my first ever job as a fully-qualified doctor- so I had a lot to learn.

AMUs are always busy units, with lots of patient flow and exciting medical conditions, so staff working on them are always kept busy.

The names used by different hospitals for acute wards may vary, but the core concept is always the same: to provide high-quality treatment to patients with acute medical conditions and to send them to the most appropriate onward location for their care.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.