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Answers to common questions about outpatient surgery

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You don’t always have to go to a hospital for routine procedures. Find out the benefits of outpatient care, as well as when to take advantage of it.

Many people think that the only place to go for surgery is the hospital. And that you need to pack a bag for at least a night or two. That may be true if you need a major procedure.  

But there are other places where you can have many surgeries done, and you may not even  need to stay overnight. Getting an operation without having to stay in the hospital is known as outpatient surgery (it’s sometimes called ambulatory or same-day surgery).1  This option can save you time and money.2  

Here’s what you need to know about outpatient surgery, and why your doctor might recommend it. 

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What does outpatient care and outpatient surgery mean?  

Outpatient care is actually an umbrella term that refers to all aspects of health care done outside the main hospital, says Jaime Ramos, MD. He’s the community medical director for Optum in California. Types of outpatient care centers include doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics and dialysis centers, for example. 

Outpatient surgery is when you have surgery but go home to recover the same day, Dr. Ramos explains. Let’s say you need to get cataracts removed or have knee surgery. You might be headed to an ambulatory surgery center, a clinic or even a facility connected to a hospital.3  

What procedures can I get done at outpatient surgery centers? 

In general, outpatient surgery centers handle less complicated, more predictable surgeries, Dr. Ramos notes. Most surgeries done in these centers are not medical emergencies.3 The procedures are typically shorter.    

But the level of care is the same. You still get a surgeon, a specialist who administers anesthesia and at least one nurse dedicated to your procedure3 (Anesthesia is medicine that makes you go to sleep so you don’t feel pain.4

Some surgeries and procedures done in outpatient settings include: 

  • Cataract surgery5 
  • Colonoscopy6 
  • Knee replacement3 
  • Hernia repair3  
  • Skin cancer surgery7 
  • Lumpectomy8 
  • Prostate surgery9 

In general, outpatient surgery centers look and feel a lot like a hospital, Dr. Ramos says. But they are smaller in scale. There’s a waiting room, a few operating rooms and a recovery area. After the procedure, you’ll spend a little time in recovery. Then you’ll go home to rest

What are the benefits of going to an outpatient surgery center? 

Not all procedures can be done at an outpatient surgery center. But if you have the choice, going to one instead of heading to the hospital can come with some big perks. 

They may be more convenient. It can be a big challenge to get timely appointments. But you may have a better shot at booking surgery at an outpatient surgery center versus the hospital, Dr. Ramos says. And there’s likely a surgical center in your community. So you may not have to travel as far as you would to go to a major hospital. 

They offer specialized care. Outpatient surgery centers tend to specialize in certain procedures, notes Dr. Ramos. “They do a high volume of that surgery, so they get really good at it because that’s all they do,” he says. 

This also means they can cater to the patient in ways that just aren’t doable at a big hospital. For example, maybe you’re going in for shoulder surgery. The center might already offer the other services you’d need before or after the procedure, such as physical therapy and lab work. “It’s like a one-stop shop,” says Dr. Ramos. 

They’re easier on your wallet. Hospital visits usually come with hefty bills. So, going to an outpatient care facility can help save you money. And it might be as much as 26% for orthopedic surgeries, such as knee replacements, according to one study.10  

“For most insurers, there’s probably an advantage to doing it at a surgery center,” Dr. Ramos says. That’s because the providers tend to do the same few surgeries with good results. 

Prices will depend on your health plan and the surgery you need. Sometimes, these routine procedures may be cheaper when they’re done in hospital outpatient departments. So Dr. Ramos suggests asking for a full breakdown of costs ahead of time. That way, there’s no sticker shock. 

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What are the downsides of an outpatient surgery center? 

Outpatient surgery centers offer a lot of perks. But they’re not always the right choice, depending on what care you need. 

They may not be able to handle complications. When doctors do surgery, they might encounter something they didn’t expect, Dr. Ramos says. A hospital could have extra specialists and nurses or equipment on hand if needed. But that’s often not an option in these smaller surgery centers. As a result, if your surgeon finds something unexpected, “there’s a risk your procedure could be stopped and you’ll have to go somewhere else,” says Dr. Ramos. And that could drag out your care and recovery time. 

There may be no room to stay overnight if you need to. Let’s say that, for whatever reason, you can’t go home after your surgery. Most of these ambulatory centers don’t have space for you to stay overnight. They’d likely need to have you transferred to another facility, such as a hospital, says Dr. Ramos. 

They may not offer the type of surgery you need. Outpatient surgery centers can be helpful for certain procedures. But you may not be able to get the specific surgery you need for your issue, Dr. Ramos notes. Or your case may be more complex than the center or clinic can handle. 

Is outpatient surgery right for you?  

Like most health care issues, it depends. Sometimes the decision isn’t up to you. It may just depend on whether the specialist or facility has access. Or your procedure might require you to go to the hospital.  

But if everything checks out and you can go to an outpatient surgery center, do some research. Ask the surgeon or your doctor about the facility’s credentials, suggests Dr. Ramos. 

Also find out about the potential risks and complications of the surgery. That includes how often they take place.  

Your doctor should give you instructions to follow before the surgery. These will cover things such as whether you need to stop taking medications, when to stop eating and drinking before surgery, and what to expect the day of your procedure.3, 11 

At Optum, your doctors and specialists are happy to answer your questions. They’ll walk you through the ins and outs of your outpatient surgery ahead of time. That way you can rest easy, knowing that you’ll go in for the surgery and be back in your own bed, safe and sound, the same day. 


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outpatient surgery. Last reviewed August 12, 2022. Accessed January 29, 2024.  
  2. Medicare.gov. Inpatient or outpatient hospital status affects your cost. Accessed January 29, 2024. 
  3. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Outpatient surgery. Accessed January 29, 2024. 
  4. Mayo Clinic. General anesthesia. Last updated February 16, 2023. Accessed January 29, 2024. 
  5. Mayo Clinic. Cataract surgery. Updated September 9. 2023. Accessed March 14, 2024. 
  6. American Cancer Society. Colonoscopy. Last updated February 16, 2024. Accessed March 14, 2024. 
  7. Mayo Clinic. Mohs surgery. Last updated August 23, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2024. 
  8. American Cancer Society. Breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy). Last updated October 27, 2021. Accessed March 14, 2024. 
  9. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus. Prostate resection—minimally invasive. Last reviewed April 21, 2023. Accessed March 14, 2024. 
  10. Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery. Ambulatory surgery centers versus hospital outpatient departments for orthopaedic surgeries. Published March 1, 2022. Accessed January 29, 2024. 
  11. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus. The night before your surgery. Last reviewed June 8, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2024. 

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