Acute Care vs. Ambulatory Care: Similarities and Differences

The convergence of a number of major influences on health care is spurring the development of new and blurred models of care. Nowhere is this more visible than at the ambulatory end of the spectrum.

New financial and regulatory pressures incentivize both providers and insurers to deliver care in the less costly and more efficient ambulatory environment, often as part of a larger health care system or network.

For-profit companies also are looking for opportunities to complement or compete with more traditional health care providers.

Simply put, acute refers to inpatient care while ambulatory refers to outpatient care. An acute setting is a medical facility in which patients remain under constant care.

What is AMBULATORY CARE? What does AMBULATORY CARE mean? AMBULATORY CARE meaning & explanation

What is ambulatory care?

Ambulatory care is medical care provided on an outpatient basis, often in non-hospital environments that do not require overnight stays. Ambulatory care still involves the diagnosis, observation, consultation, treatment, intervention or rehabilitation services for patients, however. It can range from a visit to your doctor for an annual exam to being treated in the emergency room for stitches and leaving the same day without being admitted.

The primary focus of ambulatory care is often general health and pain management, educating patients and their family members on chronic illnesses, injury or diseases and how to best care for them.

Here are some examples of ambulatory care:

What is acute care?

Acute care is a medical setting when a patient gets short-term treatment for a serious injury, illness or emergency health situation or recovery care following surgery. Acute care involves patients who get admitted to the hospital, either for emergency situations or for schedules surgeries, for example. The goal of acute care is to discharge patients as soon as they are healthy and stable, though some situations may require long-term acute care, averaging 20-30 days for situations like open heart surgery recovery.

Acute care often has doctors and nurses available 24/7 to monitor and treat patients. There is typically a higher nurse-to-patient ratio and acute settings can have a variety of positions like dietitians, social workers, pharmacists, specialists and rehabilitation staff on-site. Acute care often includes serious medical care, like intensive care units and critical care units.

Here are some examples of acute care:

What are the similarities between acute versus ambulatory care?

Acute care and ambulatory care can often overlap, or a patient may get initial treatment through acute care and transition to ambulatory care. Here are some similarities between the two:

Patient care

Both acute and ambulatory care revolve around the patient and their needs. Whether you work in an acute or ambulatory setting, you strive to provide the best possible care for the wellbeing of the patient. Also, many doctors, nurses, specialists and surgeons may divide their time between acute and ambulatory care. For example, an obstetrician-gynecologist doctor provides acute care when actively delivering babies and ambulatory care for prenatal checkups and patient visits leading up to the birth. Similarly, cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, gastroenterologist and their nursing staffs often work both acute and ambulatory care depending on the patient or situation.

Skills needed

Both acute care and ambulatory care require a mix of hard and soft skills. You may deal with medical situations of all kinds with patients of all ages, so developing or honing skills like empathy, patience, critical thinking and communication lend well to both nursing positions. Either role can experience high levels of stress, though often an acute care setting may encounter more given the frequent life-threatening conditions patients come in with.

Career growth

Both acute care and ambulatory care have an extensive opportunity for career and professional growth, from higher levels of nursing to administrative and leadership roles. As the healthcare industry shifts from inpatient to outpatient facilities for a growing number of medical procedures and care, the ambulatory care sector may see a greater rise in projected growth according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What are the differences between acute versus ambulatory care?

From a patients perspective, the location doesnt determine whether its acute versus ambulatory care, rather the duration of care determines the status. Here are other differences between the two:

Care setting

Acute care often is in a hospital setting because patients need round-the-clock care and attention and you can work in emergency room departments, cardiology floors, intensive care units and more. Ambulatory care often takes place in outpatient settings, like nursing homes, schools, medical clinics, summer camps, private residences and other facilities that deal with non-emergency situations and issues. Interestingly, an urgent care center is often categorized as ambulatory care, though patients with life-threatening injuries and symptoms may visit.

Work hours

Because acute care deals with emergency settings like a hospital, you may experience shift work that includes evenings, overnights, weekends, holidays and overtime. Ambulatory care settings often keep more traditional business hours, so you work daytime during the week with less likelihood of weekends, holidays and overtime. Work hours for either medical setting vary based on company, facility, patient needs and more.

Job duties

Those in acute care settings work directly with the patient, often from admission to discharge, creating a care plan working with doctors, nurses, other medical personnel and hospital protocols often because the level of care needed is critical. Your work centers on the wellbeing of the patient and you rarely interact with social services, insurance companies or community care groups for paperwork or long-term care development.

Ambulatory positions often focus on long-term care plans and patient advocacy, more so with the patient and their family, since care is not typically life-threatening. This could include elements like scheduling physical or occupational therapy sessions, home inspection visits to ensure mobility or identifying at-risk patients or unstable home environments. As an ambulatory healthcare worker, you often work with many non-medical organizations to maximize available resources for a patient, even outside of your employment organization.

Salary and pay

Acute care nurses also can earn overtime hours, which can increase their total income, whereas ambulatory care nurses may have less opportunity to work overtime hours.

Credentials and competencies

Medical care professionals require certain schooling, certifications or degrees to work in either an acute care setting or an ambulatory care one. Depending on your profession, like registered nurse or patient care technician, and desired medical setting, these credentials and competencies may vary. Be sure to review any job qualifications and local or state requirements when researching jobs.

Patient costs

Both acute care and ambulatory care have associated costs to them, which vary depending on the level of care provided, patient insurance coverage and more. On average, acute care can run higher costs than ambulatory care, given the often emergent necessity or hospital stay. For example, an emergency room hospital visit for a broken leg that leads to a surgical operation and recovery period will probably cost more than a doctors visit for migraine headaches and scheduled sessions with an acupuncturist. Of course, the patient responsibility of the costs varies depending on insurance coverage and plans.


What are the two types of ambulatory care?

Ambulatory health care may be thought of as two sometimes overlapping groups: transactional care, which has a single, primary focus, such as a vaccination, a camp physical, or even the determination of a fracture, and is likely to be viewed by the patient as low anxiety; and multidimensional care, which includes a more …

What does the term ambulatory care mean?

Ambulatory care is care provided by health care professionals in outpatient settings. These settings include medical offices and clinics, ambulatory surgery centers, hospital outpatient departments, and dialysis centers.

What are examples of acute care?

Acute care settings include emergency department, intensive care, coronary care, cardiology, neonatal intensive care, and many general areas where the patient could become acutely unwell and require stabilization and transfer to another higher dependency unit for further treatment.

What is the difference between acute care and emergency care?

Acute care is often performed in a hospital setting or doctor’s office for quick, urgent treatment. Emergency rooms serve patients with acute needs. Often, these needs include accidents, injuries, or sudden medical needs. Emergency rooms are equipped to handle rapidly changing conditions for accurate care at all times.

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