What Is Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care?

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A smiling nurse writes down a patient’s information on a clipboard.

Working in health care offers the opportunity to provide a wide variety of care across an extensive range of settings. But narrowing down those options to the specific type of care a current or future professional would like to provide and the exact setting where they’d like to work can be a little overwhelming. Some individuals find comparing working in a hospital vs. private practice, for example, to be helpful. For practicing and aspiring nurses, another effective approach is to explore inpatient care vs. outpatient care.

The health care landscape is redefining what inpatient vs. outpatient care is. While inpatient care (also referred to as hospital or acute care) has historically represented the largest share of the health care market, outpatient care (also referred to as ambulatory care) is gaining ground. Ambulatory care for cardiology and orthopedics alone is projected to grow 12% each year between 2020 and 2030, according to a 2020 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Factors such as the desire to increase access and lower costs will continue to drive growth in outpatient care.

Nurses considering enrolling in an advanced degree program, such as an online Doctor of Nursing Practice, can benefit from exploring their future in health care by contrasting inpatient and outpatient care.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care: What’s the Difference?

Health insurer Cigna explains that the basic difference between inpatient and outpatient care hinges on whether a patient has an overnight stay in a hospital (or another type of inpatient facility). Specifically:

  • If the patient spends at least one night in a hospital, they receive inpatient care.
  • If the patient does not spend the night in a hospital, it’s considered outpatient care.

In 2020, 10% of nurse practitioners worked in a hospital inpatient setting, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). The remaining nurse practitioners worked in outpatient settings, such as hospital outpatient clinics, private practices, and urgent care.

Characteristics of Inpatient Care

According to Cigna, when patients receive inpatient care:

  • They require monitoring, treatment, and medication both day and night.
  • Their stay in the hospital could be planned (e.g., for surgery or childbirth) or unplanned (e.g., because of an unexpected illness or injury).
  • They’re under the direct care of physicians and nurses in a hospital.
  • They’re formally admitted to and discharged from a hospital.

Characteristics of Outpatient Care

According to Cigna, when patients receive outpatient care:

  • They can receive a wide range of services (e.g., annual checkups or blood work).
  • They can obtain medical screenings (e.g., colonoscopies or mammograms).
  • They can receive treatment for serious diseases (e.g., dialysis to treat kidney disease or chemotherapy for cancer).

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care Responsibilities

Becoming familiar with the responsibilities of health care professionals who provide inpatient care and outpatient care can help students identify which areas best suit them.

The Responsibilities of Health Care Professionals Who Provide Inpatient Care

As employment website Indeed notes, providing inpatient care involves responsibilities such as:

  • Constant monitoring of patients with serious illnesses or severe injuries
  • Caring for patients who have had complex or emergency surgery
  • Providing childbirth care
  • Working in intensive care or critical care units
  • Working with patients who are receiving rehabilitation therapy to address serious issues, such as substance abuse or severe illness

Health care professionals who provide inpatient care commonly work in shifts that could require them to work overtime, evenings, holidays, and weekends.

One possible career path for a nurse who wants to move into an advanced position providing inpatient care is to become an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP). According to the AANP, these nurse practitioners work chiefly in acute care, intensive care, or trauma units. AGACNPs focus on complex patient monitoring, developing treatment plans, and preventing future health complications.

The Responsibilities of Health Care Professionals Who Provide Outpatient Care

According to Indeed, providing outpatient care involves responsibilities such as:

  • Advising patients on the general management of their health and pain
  • Educating patients on their illnesses and the best care for those illnesses
  • Offering routine doctor visits
  • Conducting physicals
  • Completing medical screenings and tests
  • Providing minor emergency care
  • Performing minor surgeries or procedures
  • Conducting telehealth visits

Unlike inpatient care, medical professionals who provide outpatient care typically work during standard business hours; however, some outpatient facilities could require medical professionals to work on less traditional schedules.

One option for nurses who aspire to move up the career ladder in outpatient care is to consider becoming adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners (AGPCNPs). AGPCNPs usually work in private practices, clinics, or long-term care, according to the AANP. They perform services such as conducting physical exams, ordering tests and interpreting test results, and administering therapies (including pharmacological therapies). In focusing on primary care, AGPCNPs also have the opportunity to promote integrative care, which addresses multiple aspects of care through a patient-centered approach.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care Settings

Reviewing examples of inpatient and outpatient health care settings helps to illustrate the general types of facilities where health care professionals provide care.

Examples of Inpatient Care Facilities

Many different facilities offer inpatient care. For example, the American Hospital Association lists the following types of hospital settings:

  • Community hospitals
  • Federal hospitals
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Specialty hospitals focusing on areas such as rehabilitation, orthopedic services, and obstetrics and gynecology
  • Hospitals that offer specialized care units for areas such as surgery, neonatal services, pediatric services, and burn care
  • Hospitals within correctional units

Examples of Outpatient Care Facilities

The range of outpatient care settings is extensive. According to Cigna, outpatient settings can include facilities such as:

  • Cardiac centers
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy centers
  • Gastrointestinal centers
  • Hospital outpatient clinics
  • Imaging centers
  • Laboratories
  • Medical practices
  • Mental health centers
  • Outpatient rehabilitation centers
  • Outpatient surgery centers

Advance Your Career in Nursing

Finding your niche in health care will help keep you engaged in your career and enable you to perform at the highest level. Whether you choose inpatient or outpatient care, you’ll have the opportunity to make a contribution to our health care system and help patients improve their lives.

If you’re a nurse with an interest in moving up the career ladder and assuming greater responsibility, explore Bradley University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice. Offering four nurse practitioner concentrations and a leadership concentration, the DNP program prepares students to spearhead innovation in health care. Start the next phase of your nursing career today.


Recommended Readings

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse Practitioner Specialties: Types of Nurse Practitioner Roles and Responsibilities

Principles of Nursing Leadership: Jobs and Trends



American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, The State of the Nurse Practitioner Profession 2020

American Hospital Association, Fast Facts on U.S. Hospitals, 2022

Cigna, Outpatient Services

Indeed, “Acute Care vs. Ambulatory Care: Similarities and Differences”

McKinsey & Company, “Walking Out of the Hospital: The Continued Rise of Ambulatory Care and How to Take Advantage of It”