Facts About Inpatient Rehab Versus Outpatient Therapy


If you have recently suffered a serious illness or injury, had surgery or experienced another significant medical incident, you may need physical therapy and/or other rehabilitative treatment to aid in having a complete and fast recovery. Chances are that as your treatment plan is underway, there will be some discussion of short term inpatient rehab versus outpatient therapy. Which of these options will best meet your recovery needs? 

Since no two patients or situations are the same, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. However, learning the essential facts about types of rehabilitative treatment and differences between them can help you make well-informed decisions about which treatment will help you achieve optimal recovery results.

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Inpatient Rehab Versus Outpatient Therapy: How They Differ

Inpatient Rehab ProgramUsing an inpatient rehab program means staying in a facility for the rehabilitative therapy and care you need. This requires being admitted to a rehab program and staying there – similar to a regular hospital – until treatment is complete. The length of your stay may be anywhere from a few days to a month or more, depending upon your individual needs. These short term programs may be offered in stand-alone rehabilitation hospitals, specialized wings of acute-care hospitals, or in skilled nursing facilities. Individuals admitted to inpatient rehab facilities receive comprehensive rehabilitative care via a tightly-coordinated, physician-led multidisciplinary team of rehabilitative professionals. The team will typically include rehabilitative physicians and specialists, rehabilitation nursing staff, physical, occupational and speech therapists, nutritionists, social workers, counselors, and care coordinators, among others, according to the specific needs of each patient.

Admission to an inpatient rehab program means that you will undergo intensive rehabilitative therapy, working with therapists for a minimum of three hours daily. You can also expect to have access to in-house rehab equipment, facilities and staff during your stay, giving you the opportunity to work toward your rehabilitation goals between therapy sessions in a safe, supervised environment. You will have 24-hour medical monitoring and care, including pain management and wound care, if necessary. All meals and personal care will be provided, and many inpatient rehab facilities offer a number of amenities, including indoor pools and/or spas, internet access and/or recreational facilities. 

Inpatient Rehab Therapy

Using an outpatient rehab program to assist your recovery and rehabilitation means getting your therapy and treatment through a series of visits to a clinic or private therapy practice. Services available in an outpatient rehab program typically include physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Some outpatient programs may also offer the services of nutritionists, counselors, and other rehabilitation professionals to aid clients with recovery and rehabilitation.

Appointments may be scheduled anywhere from one to five days per week. Sessions usually last 30 minutes to an hour, and if you need more than one type of therapy, you may have to attend separate appointments with each therapist. In most cases, patients are expected to follow through with exercises and activities at home, between sessions, that are assigned to them by their therapists.

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When Inpatient Rehab Might Be Your Best Option

Inpatient RehabShort-term inpatient rehab might be recommended as the best option for your recovery and rehabilitation under certain circumstances. For example, if you have suffered a serious injury or have had joint replacement or other complex orthopedic surgeries, inpatient rehab is a good option for you. In such cases, the intensive therapy and comprehensive care that rehab centers offer might be best for addressing your aftercare and rehabilitation needs to ensure that you can make your best – and safest – possible recovery.

If you are rehabilitating from a significant cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, or have chronic health conditions that may complicate recovery from an injury or illness, staying in an inpatient facility might be wise. Under such circumstances, the close medical monitoring and comprehensive, multidisciplinary care offered in this setting is probably necessary to ensure the safest and most successful recovery.

Perhaps you live alone and an acute medical incident or degenerative disease – arthritis or osteoporosis, for example – has created significant impairments that make it impractical or unsafe for you to be immediately responsible for your own care. A stay in an inpatient rehab program can be just what you need to regain functional ability and/or learn to work around those impairments before you return home.

Perhaps your recovery and rehabilitation is time-sensitive due to obligations at work or home. Using an intensive inpatient rehab program can speed your progress, and meeting all your daily needs – meals, medications and care management – can free your time and energy to focus on your recovery. This can go a long way toward minimizing the time it takes to get back on your feet. 

These are just a few examples that can make an inpatient rehab stay your best option as you recover from an illness or medical incident. If you are unsure about whether you are in need of this level of care, your healthcare providers or hospital discharge planners can help you figure things out to your best advantage.

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When Outpatient Rehabilitation Services Are Appropriate

Outpatient services might be a good option to aid in recovery and rehabilitation in cases of minor injuries, illnesses, or medical events. However, it is important to note that outpatient care is an option that is most appropriate for people who are confident that they have levels of strength, function, mobility, and independence to manage the details of their own care and recovery.  

Here are some of the details you will probably need to handle on your own or with the help of family or friends should you choose to recover and rehabilitate in your home:

  • Pain management
  • Medication management
  • Wound care
  • Personal care (bathing, dressing, grooming, toileting, etc.)
  • Scheduling and management of medical and therapy appointments
  • Transportation to and from appointments
  • Food shopping, medication pickups, and other necessary errands
  • Meal preparation and clean-up
  • Home modifications for safety and/or accessibility
  • Necessary daily household tasks, such as cleaning, laundry or pet care, for instance

When Outpatient Rehabilitation is AppropriateThis list does not cover every aspect of what you will need to manage during recovery, but it is a good starting point when evaluating whether or not recovering from home, with the support of outpatient services, is a practical solution for you. If you are unsure, your healthcare team and/or hospital discharge planner should be able to help you determine what your needs are and whether resources are available in your area to help you meet those needs safely, efficiently, and effectively.

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Inpatient Rehab vs Outpatient Therapy eBook

Facts About Inpatient Rehab Versus Outpatient Therapy

Our ebook shares the differences and benefits of outpatient therapy vs. inpatient rehab.


Inpatient Rehab Versus Outpatient Therapy: Insurance Matters

Insurance MattersIn a perfect world, decisions about inpatient versus outpatient therapy would be made according to your own medical, personal, and therapeutic needs and preferences. However, most of us must consider finances when making these decisions. So, what do you need to know about insurance coverage and your options for rehabilitative therapy and care?

Most insurance companies, including government health insurance programs and commercial ones, will require you to present documentation showing that you have a medical need for rehabilitative services in order to get coverage for the cost. They will also ask for documentation that specifies what level of care is medically necessary for you, which will be used to determine which rehab options they will agree to cover.

In general, getting coverage for inpatient rehab means showing a need for intensive rehabilitative therapy and treatment, and/or around-the-clock medical/nursing care. You will also need to be deemed able to tolerate and benefit from participation in an intensive rehabilitation program. If documentation shows that a less intensive level of care is adequate for your needs and/or ability levels, outpatient rehab may be the only option that your insurance plan is willing to cover.

Given the essential role of medical documentation when deciding whether inpatient rehab or outpatient therapy will be covered by insurance, it is crucial to be open and honest with your healthcare team or discharge planners about your needs, preferences, and concerns in regard to your recovery. Be sure to discuss any difficulties or impairments that concern you. If you are in doubt about your ability to rehabilitate effectively at home, manage your own wound care and personal care, travel back and forth to appointments, or manage any other aspects of your recovery, share your concerns.

If safety may be an issue during the early days of recovery due to a lack of help and support at home, your medical team needs to know about that as well. All of these details are essential for an accurate assessment of your care needs, which will allow you to receive the coverage you need to pay for the appropriate level of rehabilitative care. 

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