Critical, Stable, or Fair: Defining Patient Conditions

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 15, 2022
3 min read

We’ve all seen a news report about someone who got rushed to the emergency room in “critical” condition. Or read a more hopeful story about someone who’s doing "fair" at the hospital. But what do those words really mean?

In the media, hospital terms that describe a patient’s condition -- like critical, fair, serious, stable -- are vague by design. They give you just a general sense of how someone is doing, which helps protect the patient's privacy.

In your personal life, a doctor or nurse at a hospital might use similar terms to tell you how an injured or sick loved one is doing. How much more detail they go into depends on things like your relationship with the person and the urgency of the situation.

Some hospitals use a standard set of one-word terms developed by the American Hospital Association (AHA) when they describe a patient’s condition to the press:

  • Undetermined
  • Good
  • Fair
  • Serious
  • Critical

But not all hospitals define these terms exactly the same way.

That’s the hospital’s way of saying that the patient hasn't yet been checked or diagnosed by a doctor.

In general, this means the person’s vital signs -- like their heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature -- are steady and within normal limits. They’re conscious (aware) and comfortable. And the doctor expects an excellent outcome.

This means the patient’s vital signs are stable and within normal limits. They’re conscious, though they might feel uncomfortable. And the doctor expects them to have a favorable (promising) outcome.

The person’s vital signs might be unstable (not steady) and may not be within their normal limits. They’re very ill. The doctor can’t predict how the patient will do.

The person’s vital signs are unstable and outside of their normal limits. They may be unconscious. The doctor expects the outcome to be poor, or they can’t predict how the person will fare.

You might also hear the word “critical” used to describe the type of treatment someone needs. People with life-threatening illnesses or injuries need critical care, usually in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU).

If they need treatments to help them stay alive (called life support), they can also get those in the ICU. A few types of life support are:

  • A machine that helps you breathe, called a ventilator
  • Techniques to restart a stopped heart, like CPR and electric shocks (defibrillation)
  • Tube feeding to give you nutrients and hydration

Life support treatments don't necessarily mean a patient's condition is life-threatening. Sometimes doctors use them temporarily until the person is well enough to function on their own.

The AHA discourages doctors and nurses from using the word “stable” to describe a patient’s condition.

It also frowns upon combining the word stable with actual conditions, in expressions like “critical but stable.” That’s because someone in critical condition has at least some unstable vital signs.

Instead, many hospitals just use the term “stable” to describe when someone’s vital signs are steady, or not changing much.

While it’s common for doctors to use the word stable to describe a patient who’s in good condition, not everyone considers it to be that clear-cut. Since there’s no agreed-upon medical definition for the word, some researchers say that one doctor’s idea of “stable” might be another’s idea of “unstable.”

The bottom line is this: If you read or watch a news report that uses one word to describe a person’s condition, it’s meant to be general and vague. If you have a loved one in the hospital and their doctor or nurse explains their condition with a word that’s not clear to you, ask them to explain what they mean. Don’t feel bad about asking.