What Is Subacute Care? Exploring This Nursing Specialty

photo of a subacute nurse caring for a patient in bed with an iv drip 

You’ve probably heard of emergency care or urgent care, but have you heard of subacute care? This nursing specialty occupies the space between acute and chronic care, and it allows nurses to come alongside patients on their journey to recovery while working in a lower-stress environment than you may find in acute care.

If you haven’t heard of subacute care before or you’re not sure what falls between acute and chronic care, you’re not alone, even if you’re exploring potential careers in nursing. However, this relatively new level of care, despite its lack of fame, plays a critical role in serving patients in an inpatient setting.

So what is subacute nursing? Where can you find subacute nurses working, and what can you expect working in this unique nursing specialty? 

What is subacute care?

To understand subacute care, it’s helpful to use acute care as a frame of reference. Acute care is inpatient care for critical medical problems. Places like intensive care units and cardiology units are examples of acute care.

Subacute care then is similar to acute care but is not for people with as time-critical of illnesses or injuries. It’s an inpatient care level between a nursing home or assisted living and acute care, and it is for people who have an acute issue, whether that be illness, injury or disease. For example, after someone is hospitalized for an acute problem, they may be moved to subacute care.

If you need intensive wound care or IV treatment, have GI tube issues or are recovering from a major stroke or malnutrition you could find yourself in a subacute care unit. 

Where is subacute care provided?

Even though subacute is a newer approach to care, it’s growing quickly. Since many people go to subacute care after acute care, hospitals are one place you’ll find subacute care units. However, you’ll also find nursing facilities and recovery units at surgery centers with subacute care. Subacute care can even be delivered at a patient’s home, under the right circumstances.

All these locations mean that nurses interested in subacute care have a variety of locations to choose from when job scouting. If hospitals are not your favorite place—and you’re not alone with this opinion—then perhaps working in a surgery center is for you. On the other hand, if you’re interested in working with senior citizens, then maybe working in a nursing facility for the elderly is the perfect environment.

What makes subacute nursing unique?

Unlike acute care, subacute care does not treat people with critical medical problems. Instead, it focuses on ailments that are just below this level. The medical problems are serious, but there’s not as much rushing around and time-sensitive, urgent tasks involved in this specialty. This makes this a great middle ground for nurses who may be interested in focusing on care that goes beyond routine outpatient check-ups but might be wary of the high-intensity demands of working in certain acute care units.

And unlike many other types of care, subacute care is in an inpatient setting, which means the nurses get to work with patients for more than one brief visit. This means that subacute nurses can develop a reputation and relationship with their patients rather than have an impersonal one-time meeting.

What are the challenges of subacute nursing?

Because subacute nurses help patients who are managing long-term conditions, subacute care can be disheartening when patients’ conditions do not immediately improve. Additionally, with the severity of many patients’ ailments, subacute care can still be stressful, though perhaps not as intense as acute care.

On top of all of this, add the challenges of working with stressed and concerned patients and their families on a longer-term basis, and communication can be a point of friction as well. As a result, the best subacute nurses are clear and compassionate communicators.

What makes subacute nursing rewarding?

Despite these challenges, subacute nursing can also be quite rewarding. Being able to work more directly with patients on a long-term basis means you get to know them better: Their victories and healing become your triumphs too.

Additionally, while patients may not make an immediate, miraculous recovery, because they are managing serious health problems, any improvements along the way are significant successes. As the nurse, you can take heart knowing you helped your patients as they manage long-term ailments.

Traits of subacute nurses

In addition to being solid communicators, subacute nurses need to stay calm under pressure. Even though the job isn’t as stressful as acute nursing, the position still has its share of pressures, just like most jobs in the healthcare field. For instance, managing your time and patient load can be tricky—many patients still have time-intensive care needs, but subacute nurses will likely have a higher number of patients under their care than, say, an ICU nurse.

Along with staying calm during times when you’re being pulled in multiple directions by patient needs, subacute nurses need to keep organized and clear-headed. Recordkeeping is an important aspect of this job that ensures patients get the medication, treatment and care they need.

Finally, subacute nurses need to be able to work with others in a team setting. Whether it’s with other nurses, doctors, rehabilitative specialists or even patients, subacute nurses have to be able to communicate and collaborate with a variety of professionals and people throughout the patient’s care plan.

Is subacute nursing the career path for you?

Subacute nursing bridges the gap between acute and chronic care, providing inpatient care for people with serious ailments. Working in this field offers a variety of places to work, whether you’re drawn to a hospital setting or not. And like all types of nursing, it can make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

If subacute care sounds like the perfect mix of challenge and reward, then a career in this type of nursing could be for you. As you look forward to what this job holds, one qualification you’ll need is being a registered nurse (RN). Learn how you can get on the fast track to being an RN with our article “How to Become an RN Fast: 3 Potential Paths to Pursue.”

About the author

Jordan Jantz

Jordan is a freelance content writer at Collegis Education. She researches and writes articles on behalf of Rasmussen University to help empower students achieve their career dreams through higher education.

Jordan Jantz

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