Ambulatory or Walking Status in Health Care

The word ambulatory refers to walking. It is used quite often in medical settings to refer to a variety of things associated with health care.

An ambulatory patient and his nurse
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If you're having outpatient surgery, it's ambulatory. Once you're able to walk after surgery, you're upgraded to ambulatory status. Even the cane or walker you use is called an ambulatory assistive device. To fully understand the various ways your healthcare team will use the word ambulatory, let's look at its many uses in medicine.

What Does Ambulatory Mean?

The word ambulatory is an adjective that means "related to walking," or ambulation. It is used in several different ways in medical care situations. It can refer to a type of patient and care setting, what a patient is able to do (namely, walk), or for equipment and procedures that can be used while walking or by outpatients.

When used to describe a care setting, as in ambulatory care, it is referring to outpatient services. These are ones that a patient walks into and out of as an outpatient rather than spending the night as an inpatient. For example, you might have ambulatory surgery, which is also called outpatient surgery.

When a Patient Is Ambulatory

Healthcare professionals may refer to a patient as ambulatory. This means the patient is able to walk around. After surgery or medical treatment, a patient may be unable to walk unassisted. Once the patient is able to do so, he is noted to be ambulatory. A doctor may ask a nurse or therapist, "Is the patient ambulatory?"

Ambulatory Patients

The term ambulatory patients may also refer to outpatients who are being treated in ambulatory care settings rather than as hospital inpatients. It is a synonym for outpatients. They are coming and going to the care setting and not spending the night.

In this case, the patients may or may not be able to walk and they may need a wheelchair. Ambulatory simply means the patient is not confined to the hospital.

Ambulatory Care

Ambulatory care or ambulatory treatment refers to care being provided outside the hospital. It is another term for outpatient services.

In ambulatory care settings, the patients come for treatment and are not admitted as inpatients to a hospital. They typically return home the same day.

Ambulatory care settings may be a department within a hospital or at a facility outside of the hospital. They include:

  • Doctor's offices where a patient comes to see a doctor
  • Clinics including primary care, specialty care, and mental health
  • Urgent care centers
  • Ambulatory surgery centers
  • Emergency departments in a hospital are ambulatory settings, although a patient may then be admitted and become an inpatient.
  • Same-day surgery centers in hospitals
  • Day treatment centers
  • Mental health services
  • Vision care
  • Dental care

Used in Job Titles

Medical professionals and allied health job titles may include the word ambulatory to denote the ambulatory care setting and distinguish it from an inpatient hospital position. It does not mean that the person holding the job has to be able to walk.

For example, you might see the title Ambulatory Care Nurse or Ambulatory Care Social Worker. This means that these people work strictly with outpatients.

Medical Devices

Ambulatory medical devices are those that are mobile and that a patient can wear or use on an outpatient basis or at home.

An example is ambulatory blood pressure monitoring. A patient wears a portable blood pressure cuff for 24 hours while he goes about his usual activities. The results are synced to a computer for analysis of the data. This gives doctors have a clear picture of how his blood pressure changes throughout a normal day.

With continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis, a person performs dialysis on themselves a few times each day rather than going to a dialysis center. They do not walk around while they are doing it, but are not confined to a clinic or hospital setting, either.

Assistive Devices

Ambulatory assistive devices are used to help people walk. They include canes, crutches, and walkers.

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  1. Hollenbeck BK, Dunn RL, Suskind AM, Strope SA, Zhang Y, Hollingsworth JM. Ambulatory surgery centers and their intended effects on outpatient surgeryHealth Serv Res. 2015;50(5):1491–1507. doi:10.1111/1475-6773.12278

  2. World Health Organization. Appendix 1, Definitions of health-care settings and other related terms. In: WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care: First Global Patient Safety Challenge Clean Care Is Safer Care. 2009.