Posted on: August 9, 2019 Posted by: James McQuiston Comments: 0

As of 2018, the United States boasted 7,570 recognized hospitals. And if you live in a large city, you may have your pick of dozens of them.

But did you know there are different types of hospitals? While all hospitals are the same in that they provide healthcare, they differ in the patient populations served (such as primary immunodeficiency disorders), the services provided, and how they are funded and run.

Understanding the difference between the different categories can help you make an informed decision about your health at a critical moment in your life.

Let’s break down the types of hospitals down one by one.

Acute Hospitals

An acute hospital is the most common type of hospital in the United States. These are short-stay facilities that provide care for one day to a week.

You visit an acute hospital if you get into a car accident, break a bone, or come down with pneumonia.

If a patient has a chronic illness or requires extensive rehabilitation, they usually receive a referral to a long-term or specialized care facility. Often, the new facility will be within the same hospital network.


Clinics straddle a line between doctor’s office and hospital. They offer more services than a general physician’s practice, but they provide strictly outpatient care.

Clinics can include multiple departments, just as hospitals do. Often, they have emergency departments and surgical units. Many also provide physical therapy and psychiatric health care.

Community Hospitals

Community hospitals are small hospitals service local areas. They are non-teaching hospitals and do not receive direct federal funding (outside of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements). These hospitals may be urban or rural and may provide a similar but truncated list of services offered by an acute hospital as well as clinic services.

Federal Hospitals

Government agencies run federal hospitals that typically care for a specific patient population. At present, there are 213 federal hospitals. 

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs VA hospitals, which care for veterans. The Indian Health Service (IHS), which operates within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, runs IHS hospitals.

If you participate in or are covered by government programs, you will likely attend these facilities.

Not-for-Profit Hospitals

While an increasing number of hospitals fall into the realm of for-profit, nonprofit hospitals continue to thrive.

A not-for-profit hospital reinvests money earned form services back into patient care. They also receive tax benefits that match their non-profit status.

Most not-for-profit hospitals are located in urban areas. In fact, two-thirds of the hospitals in urban areas fall into this category.

Although both not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals receive the same quality evaluations, there are some patient care differences. A for-profit hospital is more likely to offer expensive, rare services or procedures to provide a return for investors.

However, there is no discernible difference between the quality of patient care at either facility.

Why are not-for-profit hospitals so common? Some states make it difficult for a hospital to run as a for-profit entity, which encourages the growth of nonprofit hospitals instead.

Specialized Hospitals

Some hospitals specialize in patient populations or practices. The most familiar examples are children’s hospitals, which feature designs to meet the unique needs of children. Hospital staff also boast qualifications directly related to pediatric care.

Other types of specialized hospitals include:

  • Geriatric
  • Psychiatric
  • Rehabilitation
  • Cardiology
  • Oncology

Sometimes, these hospitals (like this medical center) stand on their own. More often, they are part of a hospital network or serve as a branch of a larger hospital in the locality.

Teaching Hospitals

Teaching hospitals are those that operate as part or are affiliated with a higher education institution. Hospitals may partner with:

  • Universities
  • Medical schools
  • Nursing schools
  • Colleges

Teaching hospitals are ground-zero for medical students. They bring on students from the attached medical (and often nursing) school who gain practical experience on the floor.

A teaching hospital is also more likely to participate in clinical trials and research projects. Patients who visit the hospital are more likely to receive the latest advancements in medical procedures and therapies. Though, it often occurs through a trial.

For example, if your acute hospital recommends a particular treatment that is also very rare, you may receive a referral to a teaching hospital.

Because teaching hospitals take on complex cases, their quality scores tend to be lower. The low-quality score rarely reflects the standard of care provided. Instead, it acknowledges that the hospital often takes on sicker patients than a typical acute hospital.

How to Choose the Right Type of Hospital

Very often, you don’t need to choose the types of hospitals you visit. The healthcare team treating you and your insurance company help you make that decision.

For example, the ambulance driver will bring you to a community hospital that takes your insurance. If you need a referral to a specialized hospital, your physician will grant it to you.

Choosing a better hospital, however, is a different challenge.

If you are about to embark on a hospital-based treatment or procedure, you should do your research before you settle on a facility – even if your doctor recommended it.

And even if you’ve never been sick, it’s a good idea to identify the hospital you prefer to go to in the case of an accident, heart attack, or stroke.

There are several ways to learn about metrics and statistics. We encourage you to start with non-biased and easy to read sources.

Medicare’s Hospital Compare tool is an excellent place to start. It compares outcomes for five medical conditions and two surgical procedures. The Association of Health Care Journalists also runs a helpful tool at

Your Chosen Hospital Could Save Your Life: Choose Wisely

Understanding the difference between the different types of hospitals puts you back in control of your health. Even if you’ve never been sick, knowing where you might go in an emergency can be a lifesaver.

Most of us will visit an acute or community hospital at some point in our lives. But if things take a turn, it is helpful to know that there are other facilities, like specialized hospitals, designed to provide the unique care you need.

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