Often, one may hear the terms outpatient or inpatient used when referring to a type of diagnostic or therapeutic procedure. “Inpatient” means that the procedure requires the patient to be admitted to the hospital, primarily so that he or she can be closely monitored during the procedure and afterward, during recovery. “Outpatient” means that the procedure does not require hospital admission and may also be performed outside the premises of a hospital.
INPATIENT VS. OUTPATIENT: DISTINGUISHING THE DIFFERENCES IN CARE
In the most basic sense, an inpatient is someone admitted to the hospital to stay overnight. That can include a person who remains in the hospital for weeks to recover from a complicated surgery as well as an individual who only needs to stay briefly. Physicians keep these patients at the hospital to monitor them more closely.
Outpatient care, also called ambulatory care, is anything that doesn’t require hospitalization. An annual exam with your primary care physician and a consultation with your neurologist are both examples of outpatient care. But emergent cases can also be considered outpatient care. If you leave the emergency department the same day you arrive, you’re still considered an outpatient. And of course, any appointment at a clinic or specialty facility outside the hospital is considered outpatient care.
While there’s a clear difference between an inpatient and an outpatient, there is a little bit of grey area as well. Occasionally, physicians will assign a patient observation status while they determine whether hospitalization is required. This allows doctors a bit more time to evaluate you and make the most appropriate decision. That said, there are instances where a patient can remain under observation status for more than 24 hours.
Note that the location itself doesn’t define whether you’re an inpatient or outpatient. It’s the duration of stay, not the establishment, that determines your status.
INPATIENT VS. OUTPATIENT: COMPARING SERVICES
Below are some examples of treatments and services that are common for these two types of care.
INPATIENT CARE EXAMPLES:
• Complex surgeries
• Serious illnesses or medical issues that require substantial monitoring
• Delivering a baby
• Rehabilitation services for some psychiatric conditions, substance misuse, or severe injuries
OUTPATIENT CARE EXAMPLES:
• X-rays, MRIs, and other types of imaging
• Bloodwork and other lab tests
• Consultations or follow-ups with a specialist
• Routine physical exams
• Stitches and other same-day emergent care
• Chemotherapy or radiation treatment
Although the definition of inpatient versus outpatient is relatively straightforward, you should always consult your primary care physician before determining the appropriate level and type of care. Your physician will help you understand what to expect during and after any type of medical treatment.