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I sometimes see the term “critical but stable” in the news. It is often used to describe someone who has been very seriously injured.

For example (15 December 2019): "[A police officer] said the man who had been shot was in a "critical but stable " condition in hospital."

I understand that “critically ill” means that life is in danger. Similarly “stable” is the opposite.

Quotes from www.lexico.com

critically

To an extreme degree with a risk of death.
‘two critically wounded people died in hospital’.
‘critically ill patients who were awaiting surgery’

stable

(of a patient or their medical condition) not deteriorating in health after an injury or operation.

‘he is now in a stable condition in hospital’

What does “critical but stable” really mean?

  • The "stable" suffix to "critical" has the same meaning is the "+" suffix to "CCC" in S&P's CCC+ rating. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '19 at 16:35
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    This Q is better asked on a related SE site. – Kris Dec 19 '19 at 11:31
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    The two terms are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. What's the problem in language terms? – Kris Dec 19 '19 at 11:33
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    @ElliottFrisch Obviously if they're stable they're dead. So too would be in critical condition. Stable implies they aren't deteriorating. – Pryftan Dec 19 '19 at 14:48
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    "Bad but not getting worse [and probably also not getting better]." – WBT Dec 19 '19 at 15:41
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You specify British English but the only other answer with a quote is from a US source. I was curious if it was materially different in the UK.

The UK newspaper article critical and serious condition: what hospitals mean when they report a patient's state indicates it means much the same here. (the bolded part is the direct answer to your question)

Sometimes, people will include a suggestion of whether someone’s condition is stable, improving or getting worse. A “Critical but stable” condition, for instance, indicates that someone is in a bad state but not likely to get worse in the short-term.

Others recommend against using that phrasing, however, since being in a critical condition implies that a patient vital signs are not stable.

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49

It seems contradictory on the surface, but it really does just combine the definitions you listed. So,the patient's condition is very serious or an extreme degree of injury, but not currently deteriorating or worsening.

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    To add, the contradiction arises if you think "stable" means "not changing" in this context. However, in medical usage it just means you aren't getting worse, with the implication being that the medical staff (or your own body) can focus on fixing what is known to be wrong without having to deal with new problems. – chepner Dec 19 '19 at 20:21
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It will probably not be possible to get an authoritative answer to this question. The trouble is, although the phrase "critical but stable" is commonly used, authoritative sources suggest that a) it's illogical and b) it should not be used.

Here's what the American Hospital Association said in 2003 about patient conditions:

Condition

For the one-word condition, use the terms “undetermined,” “good,” “fair,” “serious” or “critical.” Definitions of patient conditions are listed below:

Undetermined - Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment.

Good - Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.

Fair - Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.

Serious - Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.

Critical - Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.

AHA: Advisory: HIPAA Updated Guidelines for Releasing Information on the Condition of Patients. American Hospital Association.

By these standards, critical means "unstable," so "critical but stable" wouldn't seem to make sense.

The AHA guidelines continue:

Clinicians find the "critical but stable" term useful when discussing cases amongst themselves because it helps them differentiate patients who are expected to recover from those whose prognosis is worse. But a critical condition means that 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.

So, the AHA acknowledges that "critical but stable" is often used to mean something like very bad, but may recover. Like you, the AHA finds this term misleading and suggests it not be used. But these are only guidelines, after all.

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    The latter part of the AHA guidelines is key in explaining this jargon-y use of the term. – Charles Dec 18 '19 at 0:11
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    What terminology would the AHA recommend to distinguish situations were: 1. Some of a patient's vital signs are unstable in a way that are likely to deteriorate in untreatable ways, resulting in death, vs. 2. Some of a patient's vital signs are unstable in ways that are likely to deteriorate in ways that would be fatal without immediate treatment, but which--given the patient's present level of care--would likely be treatable so as to be survivable. – supercat Dec 18 '19 at 15:52
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    I would argue that the "but" is a modifier that replaces the "unstable" part of the "critical" definition with "stable". "Critical but conscious" or "critical but recovering" would also work in this regards. This works in regular English, even if the clinical setting is different. The OP asks about English, not jargon, even though they are the same (and likely derivative) in this case. I do like that you've included the jargon definitions to the conversation, though. – computercarguy Dec 18 '19 at 22:02
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    @computercarguy Yep. 'But' that goes for the word in general. This is exactly what it means. Not deteriorating. Because of what you said. – Pryftan Dec 19 '19 at 14:50
  • The fact that hospitals can release these one word conditions to anyone who asks about a patient by name should tell you something about how informative they are. (to be clear, they aren't) – De Novo Dec 20 '19 at 7:33
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You have a volume control in your radio. You can set it to a very high volume (this may bother you). This is the critical part.

If you leave the volume at this level, this is the stable part.

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Stable and Unstable means the projected health status of an individual. It is talking about the future.

The first part (Undetermined, Good, Fair, Serious, Critical) is talking about their current status.

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  • Don't the words stable and unstable both refer to the current situation in regard to whether the current good/serious/critical status is fluctuating or not? – nnnnnn Dec 19 '19 at 6:41
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It's a common form of words. Perhaps not to be analysed TOO closely. I think we can agree on it meaning 'pretty bad, but unlikely to die tonight.'

Here's a couple more fun prognoses.

George Cooper was pronounced dead at the scene of the crime. His widow described his condition as 'satisfactory'.

I asked my doctor if I was at risk of Early Onset Alzheimer's. He replied "What do you mean, 'early'?"

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I understand that “critically ill” means that life is in danger.

Yes.

Similarly “stable” is the opposite.

No.

"Stable" does not mean "non-critical". It means "stable"!

A stable condition is not fluctuating/changing unpredictably. The physician believes that the patient's condition will not change unexpectedly, and therefore they can make useful predictions about what will happen next.

That stable condition can still be described as "critical"; there is no contradiction here.

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Trying to find a meaning in these words by following a definition is the wrong approach, as critical but stable is a kind of euphemism.

Much in the same way as the wording "according to circumstances" is, depending on how it's being said, either a polite way of saying: "I have no idea!", or "I'm not going to tell you!".
Most certainly, every patient's condition is "according to circumstances" (whatever the circumstances may be!), so basically saying that is nothing but saying: "Bugger off!", only more polite, and less troubling for people who are emotinally involved. Because after all, if the situation is good according to circumstances, that's quite positive, is it not!

Similarly, when you say "critical", then that means as much as "that doesn't look good, I expect the person may die". You do not say that to either relatives or in public. You do not say that to, or nearby, the patient (awake or unconcious) either. Never, not ever. The consequences of saying such a thing may be terrible.

Thus, when you are saying such a thing, you add "but stable" which in reality means nothing more but "we're currently not desperately trying to stop this bleeding, and we're currently not reanimating".
But still, although the word "stable" has absolutely no meaning in terms of "condition will not change" (or even "condition will not change to the worse"), and usually people know very well that it is a kind of "lie", it is still very much appeasing the perceived situation for people directly involved.

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