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Depending on the individual’s needs, outpatient treatment can be an excellent means of obtaining substance abuse recovery help.

Substance abuse is a complicated issue, potentially impacting all areas of one’s life, including work, health, and interpersonal relationships. Hopefully, at some point, a person in the grips of drug or alcohol addiction will reach out for help. Thankfully, there are many settings and levels of addiction treatment available to provide recovery assistance.1 After an assessment from a doctor or other qualified addiction medicine professional, outpatient treatment may be recommended. Usually, it is reserved for those whose addictions are less severe, who don’t have other mental health disorders, and who have a supportive home environment.1

What is Outpatient Treatment?

There are a number of treatment options for those struggling with substance abuse. One option is an outpatient treatment center.

These centers are an excellent option for those who know they need help for drug abuse or alcoholism but are unable to stop working or attending school to get it.

Programs for outpatient treatment do vary but essentially provide assistance a few times a week for a limited amount of hours.1 Outpatient treatment centers provide a level of flexibility that many individuals require, but its effectiveness can be limited, especially for those who need medical as well as psychological recovery services—the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that some low-intensity outpatient programs don’t offer much more than drug education.2

Benefits of Outpatient Treatment

Depending on the individual’s needs, outpatient treatment can be a good means of obtaining substance abuse recovery help.

Outpatient treatment is appropriate for those whose condition is sufficiently stable, whose symptoms are mild, and are willing to participate in the treatment plan.1

With that in mind, there are many potential benefits to seeking treatment on an outpatient basis.

For one, outpatient treatment can be delivered through various settings:3,7

In a hospital clinic.

In a community mental health clinic.

At a local health department.

At a therapist’s office.

By telephone.

Additionally, the daily schedule can be adjusted in many outpatient programs to allow sufficient time for school and/or work commitments.3

It should be emphasized that it is of utmost importance to first receive a thorough evaluation and detailed examination of your specific drug abuse issues from someone qualified to make the recommendation for outpatient treatment.

Intensive Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment

Intensive outpatient treatment may more closely match the services and effectiveness of inpatient programs. Those with more severe addictions may fare better in an IOP than in a lower-intensity program. IOPs tend to have more and longer therapeutic visits per week. These programs tend to cost more than regular outpatient programs, though this cost varies by program.4,5

Partial Hospitalization or Day Treatment

Slightly farther up the scale on a continuum of treatment levels in terms of intensity is partial hospitalization.1 While it might not sound like it, this is still considered an outpatient level of treatment, albeit a”very intensive outpatient” level of therapy. Also called “day treatment,” partial hospitalization level treatment is appropriate for those requiring more intensive blocks of therapy based on the seriousness of their addiction history and is an alternative to inpatient treatment.6

Those who meet the criteria for partial hospitalization are seen as able to make progress on their treatment goals when they return to home, school or work, but still require more frequent, or concentrated periods of access to medical care and/monitoring by treatment professionals or other addiction treatment staff to maintain recovery momentum.7,8

Partial hospitalization is sometimes reserved for those who have been through an inpatient or residential treatment program, but who need to continue a relatively intensive course of treatment to avoid relapse. It may also be appropriate for those who need medication or other medical services or treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.7,8 Day treatment, expectedly, requires more of a time commitment than other outpatient treatment levels—it varies depending on individual situations, but it can exceed 20 hours per week.7 What it has in common with the other, less intensive levels of outpatient treatment is the fact that patients continue to live at home for the duration of treatment.6

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment

Of course the most important consideration in determining the need for inpatient or outpatient care is dependent upon the severity of your condition.

Studies show that outpatient treatment can be quite successful for those in recovery.8 The advantages of outpatient treatment vs. inpatient treatment lie in the patient’s living situation.

Some argue that there are distinct benefits to allowing a patient to continue to live (and in some cases, work and attend school) in a home environment—in this case, whatever it is they might call home. While inpatient treatment removes those struggling with substance abuse from an environment that may have contributed to the development of drug or alcohol addiction to begin with, outpatient treatment provides the recovering person a way to more accurately test the efficacy of ongoing treatment and practice newly developed skills while remaining amidst those very triggers.8 PHPs provide intensive support during the day but then lets the patient take what the learned home at night and practice them in the “real world.”

In addition, outpatient treatment challenges a patient to seek out and utilize sources of support in their home environment, such as in finding local self-help groups or other recovery mentors in the neighborhood that can help guide someone down the path of recovery.3 Given that the transition from inpatient to outpatient treatment can be jarring, the addict in recovery will need the support of the community where he lives, works, and belongs to welcome him back to wellness and to a life without the bondage of addiction.

There is a flip-side to these arguments, however. Those struggling with an addiction might face a much greater challenge of abstinence in an outpatient treatment center, especially in the early stages of recovery. Since their environment is not changing, they can easily access the addictive substance and are faced with temptation on a regular basis.

In addition, outpatient treatment does not always mandate follow-up or aftercare treatment after the period of outpatient treatment ends, so it is important to find a facility that can direct you to another service that provides it, to help ensure continuity of care and continued recovery.

The cost of outpatient also tends to be lower than that of inpatient services. Outpatient programs of various types tend to cost anywhere between $100 and $500 per treatment session,9 and this cost varies by length and frequency of treatment. Inpatient treatment, on the other hand, costs around $200 to $900 per day,9 though the level of medical and psychological care in these programs may be higher.

Of course the most important consideration in determining the need for inpatient or outpatient care is dependent upon the severity of your condition. If substance abuse is interfering with your life, your relationships, your job, or your medical or mental health, inpatient programs frequently will prove a better option.

What to Prepare Before Seeking Help

Before seeking out a treatment program for yourself or a loved one, do some basic leg work to ensure you have the necessary information. Try to find out:

How long the substance use has been going on.
How much of the substance is being used consistently.
If any other drugs are being abused at the same time.
If there are known medical issues/diseases.
If other mental health disorders are present.

You should also have some financial information at hand, especially your insurance information. When you call a hotline or a specific treatment center, whether outpatient or inpatient, you may be asked to provide specific details about your coverage, so have your or your loved one’s card handy. Also remember that you can ask about payment options like loans, financing, and scholarships.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Treatment Settings.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Types of Treatment Programs.

CIGNA. (2017). Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment for Substance Use Problems.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.) Chapter 4. Services in Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs.
Broome, K. M., Knight, D. K., Joe, G. W., & Flynn, P. M. (2012). Treatment Program Operations and Costs. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 42(2), 125–133. (n.d.). Mental health care (partial hospitalization).
California Department of Health Care Services. (2016). Partial Hospitalization Services.
McCarty, D., Braude, L., Lyman, D. R., Dougherty, R. H., Daniels, A. S., Ghose, S. S., & Delphin-Rittmon, M. E. (2014). Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Programs: Assessing the Evidence. Psychiatric Services (Washington, D.C.), 65(6), 718–726.
American Addiction Centers. 2017.