What is the Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient Care?

What is the Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient Care?

Uncover the distinctions between inpatient and outpatient care. Learn about the differences and the advantages.

The terms ‘inpatient’ and ‘outpatient’ might sound fairly interchangeable, but in the world of medicine and healthcare they are very different. Both terms relate to the duration of a patient’s stay at hospital. Knowing the difference between these terms will help patients to plan for and manage their healthcare in a smarter, more cost-effective way.

Knowing the difference between inpatient and outpatient care is particularly important for someone thinking about purchasing a health plan, or for someone who simply wants to plan for unexpected medical costs that could potentially put them out of budget.

What is inpatient care?

Inpatient care usually takes place in a hospital or a related facility that has been designed to provide care for patients who require an overnight stay. The duration of an inpatient’s stay can be anything from one night to several — this all depends on their condition, recovery requirements and recovery time. Patients receiving inpatient care are usually under close supervision from a team of medical staff including doctors, physicians and nurses. When in inpatient care, a person can expect the following:

  • Depending on their condition, a patient will be admitted to a particular service — these include Oncology, General Surgery, Cardiology
  • The patient requires 24-hour medicine, care, monitoring, and medical treatment under the watchful eyes of professional medical staff
  • Inpatient care can be planned in advance for routine surgeries, people with chronic illnesses, cosmetic procedures, or the delivery of a child
  • It can also be the right care for people who have experienced an emergency injury or sudden illness, such as a serious traffic accident, severe burns or a stroke

Patients in inpatient care should wait for their doctor to confirm that they no longer require such a high level of care. At this point, the patient will be discharged from the hospital and given detailed discharge notes, which usually include instructions for follow-up appointments, prescription medicine requirements, and whether any additional services are needed.

What is outpatient care?

Outpatient care is usually performed in medical facilities that are co-owned or linked closely to the local hospital. They are usually built to accommodate treatment and procedures that can be done within a day and which do not require an overnight stay. These can include walk-in clinics, dedicated outpatient surgery centers, and even sometimes a doctor’s office. There are also hospitals around the world that have their own, dedicated outpatient care facility. There may be circumstances where anesthesia is required as part of the procedure — if this is the case, the patient is usually asked to wait in the facility for the anesthesia to wear off.

Some of the reasons a patient might be offered outpatient care include:

  • Minor surgeries such as mole removal, laser eye surgery, or surgery on the hands or feet
  • Dental surgery including root canals, gum grafts, and extractions
  • Medical screenings such as a mammogram, endoscopy, or colonoscopy
  • Treatment for chronic illnesses such as chemotherapy, radiation, or dialysis
  • Debridement of subcutaneous tissue
  • Treatment of superficial wounds
  • Cataract surgery
  • Draining of skin abscess
  • Injection into lumbar/sacral spine
  • Installing a temporary bladder catheter
  • Knee pain diagnostics and treatment
  • Joint replacement

Patients who receive outpatient care recover at home. They might be called back to their outpatient center for follow-up appointments with their doctor or physician.

The advantages of outpatient care

One of the biggest advantages of outpatient care is that patients can recuperate in the comfort of their own homes. They can enjoy resting and recovering surrounded by their favorite things, people, and pets, with home-cooked food, and a good night’s sleep in their own bed. These conditions can make for a much better recovery time than unfamiliar and uncomfortable hospital beds, the noises of medical equipment, nearby patients, or lights on throughout the night.

Outpatient care is almost always less expensive than inpatient care, which is another huge advantage. One night of inpatient hospital care can increase the cost of treatment by thousands of dollars. Even patients with good health insurance coverage may benefit by opting for outpatient treatment over inpatient care. Studies have shown that the difference between inpatient vs outpatient surgery costs can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Even though inpatient care is usually more expensive than outpatient care, there should be no difference in the care a patient will receive. Sometimes a patient will be given the choice of receiving outpatient care rather than being admitted to the hospital. Other times, it is the doctor’s decision based on what is right for the patient’s treatment recuperation. If given the choice, patients do not need to worry that their care will differ if they elect for outpatient surgery. It will simply be less intensive.

The costs of inpatient vs outpatient care

It’s clear that inpatient vs outpatient care costs differ greatly. There are several reasons for this, many of which are linked to the costs associated with a patient’s physical stay in hospital. It isn’t just about the cost of the surgery or treatment. Inpatient costs can include:

  • Administrative and operational costs
  • Costs for lab tests and pharmacy usage
  • Costs for staff including the nurses, radiologists, technicians, and specialists
  • Equipment and supplies that contribute to your care while you’re there, including monitors and sustenance

Most of these costs are not incurred by patients who receive outpatient care, especially as they can recover at home. The lower cost of outpatient care is also linked to the fact that patients can shop around and make decisions when it comes to their treatments. For example:

  • The cost of MRIs, PET, and CT scans for diagnostic radiology and imaging can vary greatly depending on where they are performed
  • Some screenings and procedures are covered as ‘preventative care’ under certain health plans, including mammograms and colonoscopies


It is often out of the patients’ hands as to whether they require inpatient or outpatient care. This is usually determined by their condition, whether it is critical or if it is the result of an emergency. In these situations, the patient must have a team of specialists on standby to monitor their progress and administer the necessary medicines. For anyone who is severely injured or suffering from an emergency illness, inpatient care is the correct course of treatment. In this scenario, should the patient take a turn for the worse or start to show improvement, a healthcare team will be on hand to navigate the situation and make quick, crucial decisions regarding their care.

There are occasions where patients will be offered the choice between inpatient and outpatient care. In this situation, outpatient care oftentimes can outweigh inpatient care in terms of benefits. The patient can return to their own home, surrounded by loved ones and the things that make them happy. The familiar sounds, smells, sights all contribute to a speedier recovery. Outpatient care also incurs no additional expenses, such as operational costs related to the running of the hospital, or administrative costs linked to medical staff and patient tests. Outpatients also have the advantage of shopping around for the best prices when it comes to radiology and imaging scans.

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