Inpatient Vs. Outpatient Patient Care: What’s The Difference?

January 26, 2022
Patient Care

Patient Care

Inpatient Vs. Outpatient Patient Care: What’s The Difference?

When describing a type of therapy or diagnostic procedure, the terms inpatient and outpatient are commonly used. Inpatient care is the process that requires patients to be admitted to the hospital, mainly to be carefully monitored during the entire procedure and later during their recovery. On the other hand, outpatient care indicates that the process either doesn’t need hospital admission or can be done outside the hospital premises. Both care procedures come with different services involved but with the same objective of providing better patient care.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care Programs

In General, hospital patients are admitted for an overnight stay. This can include patients who stay in a hospital for many weeks to recover from complex surgeries and those who stay for just a few days. In addition, hospitals keep patients on the premises to monitor their condition more closely.

Outpatient care or ambulatory care is a process that doesn’t need hospitalization. An annual physical examination with a primary care provider or a consultation with any neurologist would both be considered outpatient care. An emergent situation would also qualify as outpatient care. If you are discharged from the emergency room on the same day you were admitted, you are still considered an outpatient. And of course, an appointment at a doctor’s clinic or specialty facility outside the premises of a hospital is also an example of outpatient care.

While there seem noticeable differences between inpatient and outpatient programs, there’s still a bit of a gray area present. Medical professionals often assign patients observation status while considering whether hospitalization is necessary. That gives physicians more time to evaluate patients and thoroughly make the most suitable decision. That said, there are few instances where patients may stay under observation status for over 24 hours.

Defining Inpatient Care

Inpatient care is a medical service that requires patients to be admitted by the doctor in a hospital or any other healthcare facility to stay there overnight for close medical observation. Patients in inpatient care typically suffer from severe health conditions or are trying to recover from any life-threatening traumas that need close monitoring by doctors or nurses for more than one day.

For any patient to get inpatient status, a physician must request first. However, this process doesn’t merely involve a physician or hospital signoff. Important guidelines explained in the Medicare Benefit Policy Manual assist healthcare professionals in deciding which patient should receive inpatient status. In accordance with these guidelines, not all patients who stay more than a day in a hospital are considered inpatients. If inpatient care is not needed, avoiding it will reduce costs for those who pay for patient care, such as insurance companies.

Types of Inpatient Care

Different types of inpatient care are explained below:

  • Childbirth. Labor may take about an hour or so to over more than one day. Occasionally, a cesarean section is necessary to ensure that both mother and the newborn are safe, requiring an overnight stay at the hospital for close observation.
  • Complex surgeries. From organ transplantation to bypass surgery, complex surgeries such as the heart or gastric organs need proper observation and recovery over numerous days under the supervision of medical professionals.
  • Serious health issues. Patients having severe health problems need close monitoring from their healthcare providers. Severe health problems include patients suffering from severe respiratory problems that need intubation, experiencing severe seizures from any brain damage, and patients in comas.

Defining Outpatient Care

Outpatient care defines any medical treatment or procedure that doesn’t need patients to stay overnight. When considering inpatient or outpatient care offered by the hospital, whether or not a patient has to stay overnight usually describes the difference between these two. However, exceptions exist.

For instance, an emergency room visit typically indicates an outpatient service, even if the patient will probably need to stay overnight. If that emergency room visit becomes an extended stay and the doctor officially admits that patient to a hospital, the patient’s status will change to inpatient.

Generally, outpatient care includes physical examinations, one-time treatment, or ongoing treatments such as chemotherapy. If surgeons suggest lab work before performing any surgery, they can visit labs in their outpatient facilities to save time and costs. The data collected in that outpatient care visit is shared with surgeons, allowing them to understand if underlying health problems may result in complications during the patient’s surgical procedure.

Types of Outpatient Care

Outpatient services encompass anything from a patient seeking treatment for substance abuse in an outpatient rehab facility to athletes having surgical procedures for some minor injuries. Additional types of outpatient care include:

  • CT scans and Chest X-rays: These procedures can be performed to help diagnose the reasons for abnormal heart rhythms, chest pain, breathing problems, and more.
  • Urinalysis: Physicians use these tests to diagnose causes of bladder infections and kidney pain and tests for chronic ailments such as diabetes.
  • Blood tests: Such tests can be used to check for a great range of problems, including levels of sodium, potassium, and electrolytes that help regulate your body’s functions.


Inpatient and outpatient care services aim to provide high-quality patient care at all times. However, both services come with different procedures and duration to stay in the hospital. The difference between them isn’t determined based on the location, but the time a patient needs to be admitted. Hospitals generally make more profit from inpatient care services. However, in recent years, a modification toward outpatient services has been growing.

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Andi Perullo de Ledesma

I am Andi Perullo de Ledesma, a Chinese Medicine Doctor and Travel Photojournalist in Charlotte, NC. I am also wife to Lucas and mother to Joaquín. Follow us as we explore life and the world one beautiful adventure at a time.

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