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The terms “inpatient” and “outpatient” are often offered without explanation when describing specific medical practices, therapy options, long-term care and even routine exams. If you’ve ever wondered why one procedure is technically qualified as an “inpatient” stay, while others are described as “outpatient,” you’re certainly not alone in your thinking. The truth is that inpatient and outpatient programs can be very similar in nature, even carried out by the same medical professionals at the same locations, with one key difference.

There’s a simple difference that can help you distinguish between “inpatient” and “outpatient” care. And it’s a difference that can affect a wide variety of procedures you might need, everything from a routine wisdom tooth removal to a complicated surgery. The following is not a hard and fast rule when it comes to characterizing whether independent programs or procedures are to be qualified as “inpatient” or “outpatient;” rather, it serves as a general rule of thumb, to help you understand why one qualification over the other might better suit your needs. 

So here’s the main difference between “inpatient” and “outpatient” programs: In general, inpatient care requires an in-person hospital stay of at least a night, where a patient is required to remain at the location of their care for brief or extended onsite monitoring. Examples include rehabilitation facilities, maternity wards and nursing homes, anywhere that requires a patient to stay on the premises for health monitoring purposes before, during or after their care has been administered.

If you need a rather advanced surgery, have contracted a serious illness that requires substantial care or your psychiatric condition calls for hands-on monitoring, inpatient programs are likely the best fit for your situation.

On the contrary, outpatient care typically does not require hospitalization of the patient. As a result, that same patient is typically looking at a shorter period of total care, care which can generally occur in the comfort of their own home. If the extent of your procedure can also take place outside of a hospital, it also qualifies as outpatient care. Examples of outpatient care include weight loss programs, MRI scans and some independent urgent care clinics. Patients are typically seen for a finite amount of time and are not required to remain on the premises after a procedure has been completed.

When it comes to items like your annual physical exam, a colonoscopy or mammogram, or any other type of specialist consultation or isolated appointment, an outpatient program is likely the best fit for your needs.

Sometimes, the lines between inpatient and outpatient care can be blurred. Some emergency situations can still qualify as outpatient care. Specific situations can also call for in-person monitoring of a patient, without that care being qualified under an inpatient stay. The important thing to remember is that it’s the length of your stay, not the location where it takes place, that ultimately determines whether the care you’re receiving is qualified as inpatient or outpatient care.

Is mental and behavioral health care considered inpatient or outpatient?

Mental and behavioral health care is so critical when it comes to promoting healthy, long-term health and well-being. If you’re wondering whether to pursue inpatient or outpatient behavioral or mental care, here’s a suggestion: don’t make that decision on your own. Ask a licensed medical professional for help in determining the best path forward for you.

Depending on your needs, there might be an inpatient or an outpatient behavioral or mental health program that better accommodates specific concerns you have. For acute trauma and more severe psychological issues, an inpatient program is likely best-suited to help you address conflict. If you’re only looking for something like biweekly counseling or help coping with an anxiety disorder, there’s likely an outpatient program near you that’s a great fit.

At Pyramid Family Behavioral Healthcare, we consider it a privilege to offer Atlanta’s first free-standing structured outpatient program. We’ve developed comprehensive outpatient programs to help both adults and adolescents deal with issues like depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder and other common behavioral health issues, without the need for intensive inpatient care. It’s a great opportunity to experience top-tier therapy from licensed professionals, and the outpatient nature of the care allows patients to put newly-learned coping skills to work in the real world.

The terms “inpatient” and “outpatient” will help you qualify one procedure over another, but they should never be used as decision-making factors. If you’re at all concerned about the appropriate level of care you need for best results, you should always feel comfortable consulting your primary care physician or any other licensed professional who can help. Whether it’s inpatient or outpatient care, getting the help you need isn’t a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s an indication that you’re dedicated to pursuing the best version of yourself that you can become, with the help of the right program or practice along the way.


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