Ambulatory vs. Outpatient

Ambulatory vs. Outpatient

Ambulatory surgery centers and outpatient hospitals offer diagnosis, surgical procedures, and preventative treatments. But do you understand the differences between ambulatory vs outpatient?

The catch is that there’s no need for a sizable, conventional hospital. Both provide similar services and safe, quality care but differ greatly. 

Although ambulatory and outpatient are used interchangeably, they refer to different things.

Let’s understand the distinction between them!

Ambulatory vs Outpatient Services: How They Work

To understand how ASC vs hospital outpatient services compare, you should initially learn about ambulatory surgery centers and their differences from outpatient surgery centers. So, what is an ambulatory surgery center?

Ambulatory surgery centers are small clinics that perform surgical and diagnostic treatments. They’re frequently less complicated and invasive for the patient.

Outpatient hospitals also provide surgical, diagnostic, and preventative services. The fact is that a hospital system owns and runs them.

This indicates that an outpatient hospital is a financial and administrative extension of a larger hospital system. ASCs, on the other hand, are privately owned.

Ambulatory vs Outpatient Services: How They Work
Source: Photo Contributor: Nuria Miranda

Key Differences Between Ambulatory and Outpatient Care


Ambulatory surgery centers are separate facilities from hospitals. An ASC needs to be financially and administratively separate from a bigger hospital to preserve its independent status. A private organization or group of healthcare practitioners owns and operates ASCs.

Outpatient hospitals may appear autonomous because they aren’t physically connected to a hospital. However, hospital managers are in charge of them. Healthcare providers are rarely involved in facility ownership or day-to-day management.


Ambulatory surgical center costs

The price of care is the main distinction between ASCs and hospital-based services. The gap is significant, particularly for those without health insurance or Medicare.

Health insurance companies pay outpatient hospitals and ASCs at various rates for procedures. This discrepancy is mostly due to the method employed to calculate procedure costs.

In a larger hospital system, overhead costs are significantly greater than in ASCs. The cost of procedures in an ASC is lower than in an outpatient hospital.

Health insurance like Medicaid and Medicare will compensate for the same procedure at a reduced rate for ASCs. This is because they don’t need extra financial help for other specialty services unrelated to surgery.

Outpatient hospital-based costs

Generally, ambulatory surgery centers are less expensive than outpatient hospitals. According to data from research done by United Health Group(2019), the difference between ASC and outpatient center prices is $4,559. Outpatient procedures average out to $7,700. Compared to this, an ASCsavarage comes down to $3,160.

An advantage of bigger hospital systems is their ability to negotiate. They can negotiate for greater payment rates with insurance companies.

Duration of stay

ACS’s rules state that a patient’s stay shouldn’t exceed 24 hours after surgery. Yet, how long it takes for a patient to be discharged depends on the ASCs discharge criteria. 

Normally, the patient has to be awake and alert. Also, their vital signs need to be in check.

At outpatient surgery centers, patients, on average, leave one and four hours post-op. Yet, how long a patient stays depends on the type of surgery they have and their post-op state.

Like the ASC, outpatient centers allow patients to stay for no more than 24 hours.

Types of services

Ambulatory surgery center procedures

In healthy patients, procedures carried out in an ASC are noticeably simpler. Since ASCs don’t require patients to stay overnight in a hospital, some refer to them as “day surgery” facilities.

Common procedures done by ASC include:

  • Biopsy
  • Colonoscopy
  • Joint arthroscopy
  • Injectable painkillers
  • Vision repairment surgery
  • Hernia repairment surgery

Ambulatory surgery centers are not designed to handle treatments requiring intricate surgical repairs on human beings. For instance, partial organ removal for a cancer patient won’t be done in an ASC.

Also, a standalone facility is unsuitable for surgeries that need overnight hospital care. Instead, these facilities provide elective services, which work best for patients with no other aggravating conditions.

Ambulatory surgery center procedures
Source: Photo Contributor: Serhii Bobyk

Outpatient procedures

Surgery performed as an outpatient takes only a few hours. Additionally, a hospital overnight stay is not necessary. Some municipal hospitals have outpatient clinics connected or affiliated with them. Some are standalone facilities with no connection to the neighborhood hospital.

Professionals can perform many common operations as outpatient surgeries, including:

  • Cataract removal
  • Tonsillectomies
  • Removing the gallbladder
  • Hernia surgery
  • Repair of muscles and tendons
  • Joint replacement and repair
  • Lumpectomy
  • Meniscus restoration
  • Nerve therapy
  • Melanoma and other skin tumors are removed
  • Cosmetic procedures like laser skin resurfacing

Biopsies, endoscopies, and colonoscopies are some diagnostic procedures that outpatient clinics also carry out. Outpatient surgical operations may also occasionally occur in a doctor’s office.

Ambulatory vs Outpatient Services: Benefits

Benefits of ambulatory surgery centers

When comparing ASC vs hospital outpatient services, they each have their benefits. In hindsight, each benefit shows how the two services differ.

What one service offers, the other one might not, and vice versa.

Lower medical costs

Many choose the ASCs over a hospital-based surgery center because of the lower cost. Depending on your particular treatment and circumstance, ASCs often have lower costs.

Don’t confuse the lower price for a drop in quality. Many patients discover that they receive superior care in an ASC. 

This is because doctors and nurses focus solely on the patient’s needs. They’re free from the constraints and demands a hospital places on them.

Higher physician accessibility

Doctors in an ASC might spend more time with their patients pre- and post-operation and may show more concern for their general well-being. Also, doctors are more relaxed and focused when not working in a hospital setting.

This higher level of individualized care comforts many patients. Patients feel much more at ease and less anxious when their doctor is close by and genuinely interested in their recovery.

Less stressful environment

Any surgical procedure is a stressful experience. An upcoming hospital stay might make the stress worse. It would be worse if the hospital had severe visitation policies and procedures that would prevent a loved one from coming along.

ASCs allow patients to recover at home with their loved ones close by. Thus, those who undergo ambulatory procedures frequently experience less anxiety and stress.

Greater convenience

Patients may find it simpler to get to ASCs. In rare situations, patients can select a facility closer to their home, cutting down on travel time.


Normally, hospitals are facilities that provide emergency care. Thus, they’re unable to accurately forecast who will come in or what kind of illness they’ll carry.

At an ASC, all procedures are arranged in advance. Therefore, the medical staff will be informed of the patient’s situation. Also, patients should undergo rigorous medical screening before the operation.

Patients who are ill won’t be allowed to have a procedure of any kind. Additionally, visitors with symptoms, even a mild cold, are not permitted to enter the facilities.

Benefits of outpatient hospitals

Surgeries take place close to a hospital

Although most outpatient surgeries go smoothly, some patients find comfort in having surgery close to a hospital.

Acute treatment is close by if difficulties do occur. This is because many outpatient hospitals are located inside or close to a hospital.

A home recovery

Surgery at an outpatient surgery center allows you to be finished with surgery and back in your bed by the end of the day.

Recovering at home rather than in an uncomfortable hospital bed can be quite a relief.

Simple paperwork

If you’re insured, your information is in the system already. This means all your information is easily accessible by the outpatient hospital. This also means you’ll have less documentation to complete pre-op.

Moreover, using a specific web page with all your medical records might make tracking your health easier.

Simple paperwork
Source: Photo Contributor: Franck Boston


Outpatient facilities and ASCs provide the same services. These include procedural services for surgery, diagnostics, and prevention. The cost is the primary distinction between ambulatory vs outpatient services.

ASCs don’t need to keep up with highly specialized services and have less clout when haggling with insurance firms. Prices are thus reduced. Also, ASCs allow patients to enjoy predictability and efficiency without endangering patient care.

The United States is moving more and more towards ambulatory surgical treatment. However, those needing more invasive procedures may require a hospital setting.

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