difference between acute and sub-acute care

What is the Difference Between Acute and Sub-Acute Care?


Senior rehabilitation can be a confusing maze to navigate, especially after a traumatic injury or accident. Knowing what sort of care you need and deciding where to best receive that care can be intimidating and stressful when all you really want to focus on is getting better. So how do you know what level of care you need and which facility near you will best serve those needs?

There are two main types of rehabilitation when it comes to recovery: acute and sub-acute care. What is the difference between acute and sub-acute care—and what does that mean for you?

The Difference Between Acute and Sub-Acute Care

The level of care you require will depend on the severity of your injury and on your plan for recovery. Here are a few types of illness or injury that would benefit from each type.

Acute Care

Acute care is an intensive rehabilitation for seniors who have suffered a debilitating illness or injury, or recently had surgery.

If you’ve suffered from any of the following, you’d qualify for acute care rehab:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke (minimal)
  • Pneumonia
  • COPD or other debilitating illness
  • Certain types of surgery

Acute Care specializes in those who can withstand the rigors of daily, intensive therapy.

  • Therapy usually lasts three hours or more per day
  • Patients are given therapy at least 5 days a week
  • Patients receive daily face-to-face assessment and therapy plan update
    • Patients will receive a combination of physical, occupational, and speech therapy as needed
    • A multidisciplinary approach is used to ensure a functional return to each patient’s daily life

Acute care gives patients a constantly moving goal that continues to improve their quality of life until they can transition to life outside of therapy, or possibly to sub-acute care, should it be needed.

Sub-Acute Care

Sub-acute care is intensive, but to a lesser degree than acute care. This type of care is for those who are critically ill or suffer from an injury that won’t withstand the longer, daily therapy sessions of acute care.

Sub-acute care is for anyone who needs treatment that involves:

  • Intensive wound care
  • IV treatment
  • GI Tube issues
  • Major, long lasting Stroke issues
  • Any malnutrition or eating disorder issues
  • Any critical illness
    • Cancer
    • ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease)
    • Any other Terminal illness in its early stages

Sub-acute care is also a great option for anyone who’s already completed acute treatment, but still needs therapy to regain full functionality. It is a less intensive therapy that includes the following:

  • Therapy sessions that last for two hours or less each day
  • Frequent meetings which involve the patient, their family members, and their care team to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals
  • The focus is on regaining strength, mobility, and long-term functionality over the course of therapy
  • A combination of physical, occupational and speech therapy is used for best results
  • Other therapies, such as respiratory therapy, may be added as needed for a holistic care approach

Sub-acute care for seniors, while extensive in its approach, is all about returning patients to their normal, daily environments with the highest level of strength and functionality possible. After a serious illness or injury, it can be difficult to make that transition back to normal life, especially if that “new normal” is different. That’s where sub-acute care steps in. It allows patients to take their time adjusting to a new quality of life, emotionally and physically.

Deciding on the Best Path

Oftentimes, deciding which sort of therapy a patient needs is left up to family members, as the patient is unable to make that decision for themselves. While a doctor might recommend one over the other, it is ultimately the next of kin who must shoulder that responsibility.

You want to make the best decision possible for your loved one. If you’re considering having them stay at a nursing home to complete their therapy, download your free nursing home checklist. It will help you ask the right questions at your next nursing home tour, so you can feel confident that you’re making the right choice.

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