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Inpatient Vs Outpatient Care: Key Differences Explained

Inpatient Vs Outpatient Care: Key Differences Explained

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Inpatient and outpatient care are two types of medical services that differ in their approach and the length of time patients spend at a healthcare facility.

While they can both be used to treat a wide range of patients and medical conditions, there are some significant differences between them.

Inpatient care is provided in hospitals or other inpatient facilities, where people are admitted and spend at least one night as a patient. Outpatient care, on the other hand, is a medical service that does not require an overnight stay and is often used for less invasive treatments or procedures.

In short, inpatient care means a patient is being admitted to hospital while outpatient care means they can go home after the treatment or procedure.

As an NHS doctor, I’m going to use my experiences of working both in inpatient and outpatient settings to further explore the differences between these two types of care and what they mean for patients.

What’s The Difference Between Inpatient & Outpatient Care?

Inpatient and outpatient care are two different approaches to providing medical treatment for patients.

Inpatient care, as the name suggests, involves hospitalisation or staying at a medical facility for a certain period, while outpatient care refers to treatments that can be completed without hospitalisation.

Inpatient care is typically required for serious health issues that necessitate constant monitoring and supervision by healthcare professionals.

Examples of such issues include severe respiratory problems, chronic diseases like cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and treatment for substance use disorders or serious mental health conditions.

Inpatient care facilities are equipped to handle round-the-clock care. The range of services available generally includes diagnostic testing, medication management, therapy sessions, and surgical interventions.

Patients are admitted for inpatient care after a thorough evaluation by a healthcare professional and the hospital stay usually lasts until the patient has stabilised or improved significantly.

Inpatient Vs Outpatient Care Pixel Infographic

Outpatient care, on the other hand, involves medical treatments and procedures that can be completed within the same day without the need for hospitalisation.

This type of care often includes routine check-ups, minor surgical procedures, diagnostic tests, and follow-up appointments.

In some cases, individuals might also receive outpatient care for more complicated treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Patients who receive outpatient care are expected to recover and remain stable without the ongoing supervision or extensive resources offered in an inpatient setting.

The Different Types Of Care

Inpatient and outpatient settings generally lend themselves to different types of care- although there can be a significant overlap as more and more services adopt an outpatient approach.

Examples Of Inpatient Care

The easiest way to imagine inpatient care is to think about what sort of things go on in a hospital with doctors in white coats. Inpatient care settings typically include:

  • Intensive care units: Patients with life-threatening conditions are closely monitored and treated. Specialists manage patients who require advanced interventions, such as mechanical ventilation or haemodynamic support.
  • Surgical wards: Major surgeries, like joint replacement or cardiovascular surgery, will often require an inpatient stay. Patients receive post-operative care until they are stable.
  • Medical wards: Patients diagnosed with serious illnesses, such as pneumonia or heart failure, might be admitted to a medical ward for diagnostics, treatment, and continuous monitoring.

Examples Of Outpatient Care

Outpatient care, also known as ambulatory care, is defined by patients receiving care during the day and returning home after treatment. Some examples of outpatient care include:

  • Day surgeries: Minor procedures like biopsies, cataract surgery, and endoscopies are performed on an outpatient basis, allowing patients to recover at home.
  • Diagnostic and screening services: Imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI scans, or blood tests, are conducted in outpatient settings to diagnose and monitor various health conditions.
  • Consultations and follow-ups: Specialist appointments, such as for dermatologists, endocrinologists, or psychiatrists, are usually conducted in outpatient clinics where patients can discuss their concerns and receive medical advice.

Inpatient Care

While inpatient care might seem to always be the better option, it often isn’t as simple as more resources being better for the patient.

Advantages Of Inpatient Care

  • Round-the-clock care: Inpatient care ensures patients receive 24/7 attention and care from healthcare professionals. This is especially beneficial for those who require constant monitoring or assistance with daily tasks.
  • Access to advanced facilities and equipment: Many inpatient facilities are equipped with advanced medical technologies and resources that are not readily available in an outpatient setting. This allows healthcare professionals to provide a higher level of treatment and care, as needed.
  • Multidisciplinary approach: Patients in inpatient care centres often have access to a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and therapists, who collaborate to provide comprehensive care tailored to the patient’s specific needs and condition.
  • Structured environment: Providing care in a controlled environment allows for a more structured care plan, enabling patients to receive consistent and reliable support throughout their stay in the facility.

Disadvantages Of Inpatient Care

  • Cost: Inpatient care is often far more expensive compared to outpatient care, as it includes the cost of accommodation, ongoing medical support, and prolonged use of hospital resources.
  • Potential disruption in daily life: An extended stay in a healthcare facility can disrupt a patient’s daily routine or the lives of family members providing care and support.
  • Possibility of hospital-acquired infections: As with any healthcare environment, there is a risk of acquiring infections that are present in the facility. Although healthcare providers take precautions to minimise these risks, they cannot be entirely eliminated.

Outpatient Care

As the NHS has to tackle ever-increasing demands with limited resources, more and more services are being switched to outpatient delivery. However, this isn’t always for the best.

Advantages Of Outpatient Care

  • Lower Costs: Outpatient care is generally more affordable than inpatient care, as it does not include overnight hospital stays or extensive monitoring.
  • Convenience: Patients can schedule appointments at their convenience and return home after the procedure.
  • Familiar Environment: Being able to recover at home can provide comfort and contribute to a smoother recovery process.
  • Faster Recovery: Getting a patient home and into their normal daily routine quicker actually often leads to a faster recovery overall.

Disadvantages Of Outpatient Care

  • Limited Monitoring: Patients in outpatient care may not receive the same level of monitoring as those in inpatient care, which could be a disadvantage in certain situations.
  • Lack of Immediate Support: Patients may have to rely on their caregivers or family members for post-procedure support, which could be a challenge for some.
  • Greater Responsibility: Patients must take responsibility for their recovery and follow their doctor’s instructions regarding medication, wound care, and follow-up appointments.

What Determines If You Need Inpatient Or Outpatient Care?

The primary factor in determining whether a patient needs inpatient or outpatient care is the severity and complexity of their medical condition.

Patients under inpatient care are closely monitored by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals within a hospital setting.

A hospital porter pushing a patient trolley
Inpatients receive care in a hospital

They generally have access to the most advanced tests, scans and investigations and can be quickly reviewed by a vast range of specialists.

Factors such as the patient’s general health, the availability of outpatient facilities, and the type of procedure also play an important role in determining the appropriate care setting.

Broadly, doctors will consider a patient’s medical history, severity of their condition, and the complexity of the required treatment when deciding whether inpatient or outpatient care is the most suitable option.

Inpatient Vs Outpatient FAQs

What is an inpatient?

An inpatient is a patient who is admitted to a hospital or medical facility, typically involving an overnight stay or longer. This type of care is necessary when a patient’s condition requires close monitoring, comprehensive treatment, and access to advanced medical equipment and personnel.

What is a day patient?

A day patient, also known as an outpatient, is a patient who undergoes medical treatment without being admitted for an extended stay at a hospital or medical facility. Day patients usually receive care and return home on the same day, with no overnight stay required.

What types of medical conditions require inpatient care?

Medical conditions that require inpatient care are often more severe and complex, necessitating continuous monitoring and intervention from the medical staff. Some examples include cancer, pneumonia, severe burns, serious mental health issues, treatment for substance use disorders and overdoses.

What kind of conditions are suitable for outpatient care?

Outpatient care is suitable for less severe medical conditions and routine medical procedures that do not require extended monitoring or intervention from medical staff. Examples of outpatient care services include specialist reviews (e.g. seeing a cardiologist), colonoscopies and mammograms.

Final Thoughts

If a patient’s treatment or procedure can be done as an outpatient, without the need to be admitted to hospital, it often will be.

This just avoids a lot of the hassle of admission, is a lot cheaper for the NHS as a whole and is generally more convenient for the patient.

However, there will always be a level of care that is only available to inpatients, that can’t be delivered in an outpatient setting, so admission remains an important tool in a doctor’s toolkit.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.