Ambulatory care refers to medical treatment provided on an outpatient basis. Less expensive than an inpatient hospitalization, ambulatory care has emerged as the fastest growing segment of the health care market in the US. The expansion of ambulatory care has been aided by improvements in medical technology and the level of home health nursing care available. The types of ambulatory care settings are as different as the recognized medical interventions and sub-specialties that practice within them. Among the most utilized of these settings are urgent care clinics, outpatient surgical centers, radiology and imaging practices, physical and rehabilitation clinics, renal dialysis centers and even cosmetic surgery spas.
Diagnostic ambulatory care settings include radiology and imaging centers as well as clinical laboratories. These venues allow individuals to complete a physician-ordered x-ray, CT scan, MRI, cardiac stress test, echocardiogram or laboratory test without returning to the hospital as an outpatient. As compared to hospitals, these clinics are usually much more convenient to use. A patient generally enters the freestanding facility directly without having to follow complicated directions to reach the department. More importantly, routine scheduled tests are not regularly postponed for higher priority emergency evaluations, which is the standard procedure for diagnostic tests conducted at an inpatient facility.
Other types of ambulatory care settings can best be described as focused on short-term treatment. These facilities include urgent care clinics, outpatient surgical centers and cosmetic surgery spas. Again, these care settings are often more convenient for the patient in terms of waiting times, location and privacy during the visit. In many cases, costs are lower than those incurred by a patient having the same procedure in an inpatient setting. Markedly shorter waiting times are often cited as the main reasons for using an urgent care clinic instead of a hospital emergency room. Follow-up care is limited as the primary care physician or surgeon’s private office practice usually provide the patient’s post-operative evaluations.
Ambulatory care settings providing long-term care and treatment include physical therapy clinics, renal dialysis centers and oncology centers providing both chemotherapy and radiation therapies. These facilities treat chronic illnesses or injuries requiring long-term therapies. Despite having chronic or life-threatening illnesses, patients whose conditions are medically stable can obtain treatment on an outpatient basis. These clinics are less expensive than inpatient hospitalization and cause less disruption to a patient's lifestyle than a hospital admission would involve. Treatment length at long-term ambulatory care settings can range from weeks to years and often results in well-established patient-practitioner relationships.