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The Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient Mental Health

Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient

They may have similar names and involve medical care, but there are notable differences between inpatient and outpatient treatment. This guide explains what each treatment involves, along with how they are different from one another.

What Is the Difference Between Inpatient and Outpatient Care?

When deciding on the most suitable medical treatment between inpatient and outpatient care, there is one point more pertinent than others: the length of time required for someone to be in a clinic or hospital. Inpatient care requires overnight hospitalization, whereas outpatient procedures are done on the same day. The duration and level of care is dependent on the procedure type.

Below, we dig a little deeper into each treatment type and highlight what procedures are typically covered by these forms of care.

What Is Inpatient Care?

Inpatient care involves spending at least one night in a hospital or other medical facility. The length of time spent depends on the person’s condition. A stay overnight may only be required for childbirth, as an example, but it could extend to days, weeks, or even months for those suffering from a serious mental health disorder.

When someone receives inpatient treatment, they are under the care of healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, and physicians. Depending on the reason why they are receiving inpatient hospital care, a person will be admitted to a particular service. These services include general surgery, orthopedics, cardiology, neurology, oncology, and psychiatric care.

With the above in mind, there are various reasons why someone may stay at an inpatient facility. Traumatic injury, illness, surgery, and childbirth are some of the common reasons. Pertinent to our work, there are also inpatient facilities dedicated to mental health issues and substance abuse.

Because of the reasons for inpatient medical care, admissions could be planned ahead or done as part of an emergency. The former could include going in for hip replacement surgery. The latter includes medical emergencies like injuries from a serious car accident or a heart attack.

Those within an inpatient setting require around-the-clock care and monitoring. This could include administering medicine and medical treatment. If inpatient care is no longer required, according to the doctor in charge, the patient is discharged. The discharge notes will usually include follow-up instructions with other medical professionals and prescribed medications to take. They can also recommend outpatient care if necessary.

Examples of Inpatient Care

To give you a greater idea about when inpatient care is required, here are some common examples of those admitted for this treatment type:

  • Serious illnesses, including a heart attack, stroke, or flu
  • Serious mental health conditions
  • Serious substance abuse issues and overdoses
  • Severe burns
  • Traumatic injury
  • Cosmetic procedures that require extensive reconstruction or plastic surgery
  • Chronic diseases, including cancer, which demand ongoing care and specialized treatment

What Is Outpatient Care?

Outpatient care involves administering medical care to patients not hospitalized or admitted to hospital. Aside from situations that require inpatient care and standard treatments like blood tests and annual check-ups, virtually every other form of care can be considered outpatient. Treatments, diagnostic tests, psychiatric care, and other procedure types can be covered under outpatient services.

While inpatient care often takes place in a hospital, there are various settings used for outpatient care. This form of care can be supplied in a hospital. In addition, it could be in a doctor’s office, outpatient surgery center, walk-in clinic, or a private psychiatric hospital.

Admissions to outpatient care are done ahead of time. While inpatient treatment can see patients being admitted involuntarily, it is the patients themselves that often take the necessary steps to receive a specific outpatient service. This could be due to everything from minor surgeries and medical screenings to receiving psychiatric care for substance abuse.

Due to the nature of outpatient care, a person doesn’t have to plan for being away from home or having to significantly alter their day-to-day routine for an extended period. Certain outpatient services may only involve a session that takes an hour or less. Others, such as joining an intensive outpatient services (IOS) program, can require multiple long-term sessions over a number of weeks.

Following outpatient treatment, different forms of aftercare can be utilized if needed. This could include individual therapy, medication-assisted treatment, or peer support groups. It might involve one or a combination of these services, with aftercare plans structured to meet the needs of each individual.

Examples of Outpatient Care

To detail the type of patients that enroll at an outpatient clinic, here are examples of when this treatment type is used:

  • Ongoing treatment for substance use or mental health disorders.
  • Medical screenings. This can include a colonoscopy, mammogram, or endoscopy.
  • Minor procedures or surgeries. These procedures can be laser surgery, stem cell therapy, mole removal, or any other treatment that doesn’t demand advanced medical care.
  • Oral surgeries and dental procedures, with examples including root canals, implants, gum grafts, and extractions.
  • Treatment types that are to deal with long-term or ongoing illnesses. Think of chemotherapy and dialysis.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Care: The Differences

Now that we’ve cleared up what inpatient and outpatient both are, it’s time to go over the main differences between the two.


The main difference between inpatient and outpatient care has been highlighted already. This is the type of treatment that is supplied. With inpatient, you are considering procedure types such as emergency surgeries and treating unstable health conditions. For outpatient care, this involves less serious treatments like minor surgeries, lab tests, and imaging.

The treatment type also filters into the stay and care provided. For an outpatient medical procedure, the patient visits the medical facility and returns home the same day. Hospital services for inpatient care, on the other hand, involve at least an overnight stay.

The approach to care is also different between the two. For outpatient care, a patient is monitored until they are released. With inpatients, this extends to 24-hour monitoring. This means they constantly track patients – with no breaks in their monitoring – and provide them with care whenever needed, whether this is at 3pm or 3am.


When thinking about inpatient versus outpatient care, there is a generalization about the healthcare providers for each treatment option. With outpatient providers, this is commonly linked to primary care physicians. For inpatient providers, the physicians are usually seen as specialists. However, this is an overly simple way of looking at the provider types.

Ultimately, effective care is achieved when healthcare providers work together and leverage the technology available. It doesn’t matter about their specific settings and specialties.

This is why a lot of physicians split their time between supplying both outpatient and inpatient services. An obstetrician, for instance, will provide outpatient treatment when consulting pregnant patients during prenatal check-ups, and they will also supply inpatient treatment when delivering babies. This is the same for other medical professionals who work across both fields.

However, there is a notable difference in terms of how many interactions with providers are made by each patient type. In general, an inpatient will work with a higher number of providers during their treatment. A hospital stay could see them interacting with nurse practitioners, physicians, physician assistants, physical therapists, lab technicians, and so on. On the other hand, outpatients may only directly interact with a single medical professional during their treatment.


Typically, there is a significant cost difference between inpatient and outpatient care costs. This point is important in the inpatient versus outpatient care debate, as it ultimately impacts the eventual bill patients will receive for their treatment.

The fees associated with outpatient care are relatively straightforward. These fees usually cover doctors’ fees, tests performed (if applicable), and medication (again, if applicable). This makes it fairly easy to work out how much treatment will cost, whether it is only a single session or a scheduled program over a set number of weeks.

Things get more complicated when discussing inpatient care. This is due to one aspect: facility-based fees. Overnight hospitalization means patients have to cover their accommodation bills. As more healthcare professionals are involved with monitoring and treating patients, this also has to be factored into the bill. Additionally, the treatment itself can be much more complicated – and thus, expensive – compared to outpatient care.

The length of an inpatient stay will have a significant impact on its overall cost. A person who has to stay in overnight is going to pay a lot less than someone who has to remain in treatment for, say, two weeks in total.


Extending on from the previous point, insurance plays a big role in determining how much a patient has to spend on their treatment. With health insurance in place, this plan will either reimburse insured patients or directly pay medical care providers for their services.

At least, this is how it works in theory. Insurance plans can get a little messy when trying to differentiate between inpatient and outpatient coverage.

Take Medicare as an example. In Part B of their coverage, both inpatient physician-related services and outpatient care are covered. Yet Part A also covers inpatient-focused hospital services such as general nursing and rooms. A problem can crop up with an overnight hospital stay under observation status. Why? Well, Medicare will consider you an outpatient – and that means they won’t provide coverage for that overnight stay.

Medicare isn’t the only one. All insurance plans have to differentiate the services provided under inpatient and outpatient care. This can create confusion, particularly when the care between inpatient and outpatient can differ and result in a lot of complex points.

Due to this confusion, it is always wise for a patient to consult with their medical team to understand their status when it comes to insurance coverage.

The Importance of Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment

Yes, there are differences between both outpatient and inpatient care. That said, there is one aspect which is shared between them: their importance. Inpatient and outpatient procedures are a necessity for helping patients recover and improve their physical and mental well-beings.

The importance of inpatient care is clear to everyone. Without appropriate treatment for serious illnesses, injuries, and conditions, many patients wouldn’t survive. Inpatient care is essential in ensuring the most ill patients are given the treatment they need.

However, you cannot overlook the importance of outpatient care. It’s true: patients are typically not as sick as those that require hospitalization. Yet the care they receive is still highly important. Regular outpatient treatment is necessary to maintain a patient’s health. Without routine wellness exams and healthcare check-ups, this increases the possibility of a serious disorder or disease developing.

Furthermore, outpatient care can be invaluable as someone transitions from inpatient care. If someone is dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues, intensive outpatient services can further assist with their treatment. It gives them a stronger foundation to continue with recovery and enjoy long-term success.


With inpatient versus outpatient care, there is no winner or loser. Both treatment options are an essential part of life – everyone benefits from both at some stage in some form.

Inpatient care covers any medical procedure that requires an extended stay – one night or longer – within a hospital setting. Due to the seriousness of the illness, injury, or condition, continuous observation is provided to patients when receiving inpatient care.

Outpatient care is typically focused on non-emergency medical or treatment procedures. Overnight hospitalization is not part of the process. Care can involve everything from minor surgeries to helping those with mental health struggles. Although less invasive in general, inpatient care can be as effective as inpatient care in certain regards.

There are benefits for both treatment types. Inpatient care supplies a controlled environment where care and well-being are prioritized. Outpatient care is less expensive, less restrictive, and allows for building more constructive, long-lasting support networks. The latter points are why many are recommended to attend IOS for mental health and substance abuse disorders, whether they have received inpatient support previously or not.

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