The Differences Between Hospitals and Clinics

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on February 20, 2024
3 min read

With advances in technology, people are more and more involved in their medical care. You can get your health records online and interact with your doctors through online portals. 

When you need in-person care and your doctor’s office is closed, you may seek out care at a hospital or clinic. What’s the difference, and how can each one help you?

Hospitals offer care across a broad range of medical issues. Doctors called hospitalists usually specialize in internal medicine, pediatrics, or family practice. They have the knowledge to help with common issues and resources to solve more complex medical problems. Your hospital may also offer specialty care like neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, and oncology.

You may need to stay overnight at a hospital for:

  • Surgery
  • Illness or injury that requires monitoring
  • Birth
  • Rehabilitation for psychiatric issues, substance abuse, and recovery from injuries 

Hospitals are not one-size-fits-all. The specific services your hospital offers may vary:

  • General hospitals offer a wide range of services. 
  • Specialized hospitals focus on a narrow range of health conditions that could be based on health conditions, age, or the nature of your illness or injury.
  • Referral hospitals are umbrella organizations for a district or region. Doctors and administrators manage referrals to other health-care systems like specialized hospitals, doctor’s offices, or clinics. ‌
  • Primary health-care centers offer a broad range of medical services. They may be your first point of contact before you see a specialized medical professional. 

Clinics are smaller than hospitals but offer a broader range of services than a doctor’s office might. You can visit a clinic for regular preventative care or if you have a condition that isn’t an emergency.

You can’t stay overnight in a clinic the way you might at a hospital. Most clinics accept walk-in patients, and some allow you to book an appointment online or over the phone.

Many clinics offer medical services like:

  • X-rays, MRIs, and other imaging scans
  • Lab tests and bloodwork
  • Outpatient surgeries
  • Colonoscopies
  • Mammograms
  • Specialty care for some medical issues
  • Routine physical exams
  • Stitches for minor injuries
  • Chemotherapy or radiation for cancer patients

Pros of hospitals. Medical professionals at hospitals give you complete attention from start to finish. They assess you based on your concerns and offer short-term care for immediate needs. Doctors can then make referrals to specialists.

At a hospital, you see doctors with a variety of backgrounds who work together to deal with your medical concerns. You may not always get the specialized care you need during your stay, but you can learn about the next steps in your care plan.

Hospitals never close. You can visit a hospital no matter what time it is, even on a holiday. If your condition is severe, you can stay overnight so staff members can watch you and offer constant care.

Cons of hospitals. When you visit a doctor’s office or clinic, you often pay a copay based on your insurance plan. At a hospital, you may pay for the time you stay in a room in addition to your care. Hospitals often have a higher price tag than other options.‌ Fees you pay at a hospital may include: 

  • Tests
  • Facility fees
  • Specific treatment‌
  • Medications

Some insurance plans offer hospital coverage, but others do not. If you need to go to the hospital, ask for an itemized bill. Compare it to the care you received to make sure that the fees match up. If the bill is more than you can afford, ask to set up a payment plan or learn about income-based financial assistance programs. 

Pros of clinics. A clinic offers care that falls between that of your doctor’s office and a hospital. It may have extended hours and be open during evenings, weekends, and holidays.

If you can’t get a timely appointment with your doctor, a clinic may be a good option. In some cases, clinics are associated with a doctor’s practice, a larger health-care system, or a hospital.

Some clinics offer specialized care. For example, some focus on pediatrics and others on sports injuries.

Cons of clinics. Clinics aren’t usually open 24/7. If you need after-hours care, a clinic may not be able to help you. Depending on your health concern, a clinic also may not have the resources to help.

For example, a clinic for pediatric patients helps only children under the age of 18. But a general clinic may not have the technology to help if you have a condition that requires specialized knowledge.