The Difference Between Acute Care and Ambulatory Care

inpatient care

You’re not alone if the words acute and ambulatory conjure up images of triangles and ambulances. Even if you understand the fundamental distinctions between critical care and ambulatory care, you may have concerns about what each setting has to offer as a workplace. When considering a nursing profession, there are many choices to consider, and adequately evaluating them can help you make the best selections possible.

In this close-up comparison, you can put your concerns regarding acute care vs. ambulatory care to rest.

The Difference

Although inpatient therapy is described as acute care, outpatient care is known as such, as well. It is like an urgent care facility where patients are constantly monitored and treated around the clock. The line between urgent care and ambulatory care may blur since critical care clinics serve patients with potentially life-threatening diseases while still in an ambulatory setting.

In the United States, when the cost of inpatient treatments increases, patient care moves to the outpatient setting, increasing outpatient visits. To do their jobs well, nurses must first take note of the surroundings. Their skill sets may vary widely depending on the setting.

Let’s compare these two possibilities: According to Nancy Brook, RN, “many nurses believe that there is only one setting in which a nurse should work, and that is the atmosphere beside the bedside.” She disagrees and is confident that this assertion is entirely untrue.

Most likely, a typical medical drama will include an acute care setting. Patients, units, and floors in this context are examples of places devoted to acute care. The chronically ill constitute a significant portion of the population; therefore, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week acute care facilities are kept available to assist them. Registered nurses who work throughout the night, on weekends, and on holidays in these situations are likely to be found burning out.


In ambulatory care, the environments in which treatment is provided vary greatly. Nurses that work in clinics, urgent care facilities, schools, and even patients’ homes often hold this position. Brook classifies them as both professional and pleasant but somewhat out of the ordinary in the settings she describes.

In contrast to the turnover of visitors, she adds that the surrounding atmosphere is all about health. It is implied that she is saying that outpatient clinics are often open throughout the day, while some emergency clinics only become accessible later in the day. For the most part, she adds, there are only ambulatory (walking) settings available on weekends or holidays, which may significantly impact your family life and job happiness.

outpatient care

Treatment Structure

Nurses in an acute care setting primarily design the overall structure of treatment. They handle all the patients admitted to the hospital, and they stay in continuous contact with those individuals.

Acute care nurses must follow hospital rules and physician orders while making decisions. They have little contact with third-party organizations, like insurance companies, social agencies, or community groups, regarding specific patients.

Treatment Plans

Most of the treatment plans that patients and their families agree on are made by an interdisciplinary team that includes a physician, a registered nurse, and sometimes a physical therapist or occupational therapist. While nurses may not have complete access to all medical data, they must base their decisions on the limited visits over a more extended period. They help screen their patients and identify individuals who are in danger.

Home care nurses help to assist communities and not just a single-family. Assessments consider not just the specific patient but also their family members and environment. Additionally, a component of ambulatory care is working with other non-medical organizations. This makes patient advocacy more challenging.

Personnel’s Attitude and Personalities

Nurses who enjoy excitement will appreciate working in an emergency or continuous care setting, and they have the strength to deal with high levels of stress. Brook says that such work fits a personality type that is focused, energetic, and single-minded when taking care of critically ill patients.

Others believe these nurses must have interdisciplinary communication and coordination skills since ambulatory care requires more interaction than just nurse-to-patient contact. These nurses frequently deal with limited data, requiring critical thinking and clinical judgment in setting care priorities, even as they care for their patients.

Nurses with flexible attitudes find employment in ambulatory care excellent. She believes that nurses must be open to new experiences and like working as part of a team to work well with people from different backgrounds.

You can better determine whether the setting is a better match for you now that you have a better knowledge of acute care vs. ambulatory care. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, hospitals have been under pressure to reduce expenses while also making healthcare more accessible and affordable to everyone. Both of these issues are addressed by ambulatory care and acute care.

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