On another website, I got involved in a discussion about awkward terms used in reporting. One of the terms that I believe is both awkward and misleading is the term "critical but stable." I noted that "critical" means that vital signs are not stable, and so I asked how can someone be "critical but stable"? Well, others believe it is OK to use the term "critical but stable," and so I went to a higher authority to find out if using the term is in fact OK.

I asked the Hospital Association of America which publishes the "Guidelines for Releasing Information on the Condition of Patients" which merges information covered by federal and state laws as well as the best practices of medicine.

Here's what the guidelines say:

Critical. Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are not favorable. Clinicians find the "critical but stable" term useful when discussing cases among themselves because it helps them differentiate patients who are expected to recover from those whose prognosis is worse. But a critical condition means at least some vital signs are unstable, so this is inherently contradictory. The term "stable" should not be used as a condition. Furthermore this term should not be used in combination with other conditions, which by definition, often indicate a patient is unstable.

Well, there you have it from the pros. It seems that the media likes to use the term "critical but stable" but while it can be used by medical professionals among themselves it really is not a proper term for the media.

I used to use the term going back to when I was on the radio in the early 1970s, until I covered the story of a gunshot victim in Syracuse when I was doing the news on WFBL Radio. The nursing supervisor was giving me the victim's condition which she described as "critical," and I asked her if that meant "critical but stable or really critical." The nursing supervisor said "critical is never stable," and that is something I never forgot.