Sep 21, 2023

The Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient Care


In navigating your path as a medical professional, you'll eventually need to decide what type of setting you want to work in. A common point of confusion for students is understanding the difference between inpatient and outpatient care. What does each environment look like? Let's explore!

What is Inpatient Care?

Inpatient care means the procedure or treatment requires the patient to be admitted into the facility for at least one night, and sometimes more depending on the condition. This is essential for patients who need close monitoring during the procedure and while in recovery.

Once the medical team has assessed that the patient no longer requires inpatient care, they will be discharged from the facility. They might still get instructions from different doctors about aspects like prescription medication, follow-up check-ups, and other outpatient services.

Inpatient care can include:

  • Childbirth
  • Chronic diseases that require specialized treatment and ongoing care
  • Certain surgeries
  • Cosmetic procedures
  • Mental health issues (treatment for overdoses and substance use disorders)
  • Rehabilitation services (psychiatric conditions, severe injuries, and substance misuse)
  • Serious illnesses (flu, heart attack, stroke)
  • Traumatic injuries

What is Outpatient Care?

Outpatient care (also known as ambulatory care) is any medical procedure or treatment that doesn’t require hospitalization.

This usually includes annual exams with primary care physicians, consultations with surgeons, appointments outside of the hospital, and certain emergent cases where you’ll be allowed to go home the same day you arrive.

There are some cases, though, where people who intend to receive outpatient care end up moving to inpatient. For instance, if a patient comes in for lab tests but results suggest they may need close monitoring, a physician may recommend that they stay there for the night.

This type of medical care can be provided in a doctor’s office, hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, and walk-in clinics.

MRI scans during outpatient care

Outpatient care can include:

  • Consultations or follow-ups with a specialist
  • CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, and other types of imaging
  • Diagnostic or lab tests
  • Long-term treatment (chemotherapy, dialysis, and other radiation treatment)
  • Medical screenings (colonoscopy, endoscopy, mammogram)
  • Minor surgeries (hand or foot surgery, laser surgery, Lasik eye surgery, mole removal)
  • Oral surgeries and other dental procedures
  • Routine physical exams and check-ups
  • Same-day emergency care

Ultimately, the difference between inpatient and outpatient care is not just the location of the care, but also the duration of a patient’s stay in the facility. Inpatient care requires at least an overnight stay under the supervision of a nurse or doctor. Outpatient care, on the other hand, entails leaving the clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office once doctors complete the procedure. Importantly, there is indeed some overlap between the two. A single procedure could be either inpatient or outpatient, depending on the individual and their needs.

If you need guidance in obtaining inpatient or outpatient clinical clerkships, C.H.H.A is here to help. We provide hands-on training, resources, and preparation services to help you develop a competitive U.S. residency application and ensure your medical success.

Contact us today to learn more.

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