What Is the Definition of Ambulatory?

An ambulatory patient and his nurse.
An ambulatory patient and his nurse. Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Definition of Ambulatory

The word ambulatory is an adjective that means related to walking, or ambulation.

Ambulatory is used as an adjective 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 (walk), and for equipment and procedures that can be used while walking or by outpatients. When used to describe a care setting, it is one a patient walks into and out of as an outpatient rather than spending the night as an inpatient.

When a Patient is Ambulatory

This means the patient is able to walk around. After surgery or medical treatment, a patient may be unable to walk unassisted. Once they are able to do so, they are 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, 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. In ambulatory care settings, the patients come for treatment and are not admitted as inpatients to a hospital.

They typically return to home the same day.

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

  • Doctor's offices: Typically where a patient comes to see a doctor.
  • Clinics: Including primary care, specialty care, 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

Ambulatory as used in Job Titles

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

Ambulatory Medical Devices

These are devices that are mobile, 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.

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

Ambulatory Assistive Devices

These are devices that help people walk.

They include canes, crutches and walkers.

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