what is outpatient addiction treatment

Whenever potential clients call a drug and alcohol treatment facility to inquire about services, they often wonder: What is outpatient addiction treatment?

After all, it’s one of the options at most treatment centers, along with the other standard models of care: medical detox and residential inpatient (where the patient typically stays on the facility’s campus and engages in therapy, meetings, lectures and education for a period up to 30 days). Outpatient, however, seems to defeat the purpose of seeking comfort and shelter in the safety net of a treatment program.

So what is outpatient addiction treatment, exactly, and how does it work? Let’s take a look.

What is Outpatient Addiction Treatment Exactly?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Outpatient treatment varies in the types and intensity of services offered. Such treatment costs less than residential or inpatient treatment and often is more suitable for people with jobs or extensive social supports. It should be noted, however, that low-intensity programs may offer little more than drug education. Other outpatient models, such as intensive day treatment, can be comparable to residential programs in services and effectiveness, depending on the individual patient’s characteristics and needs. In many outpatient programs, group counseling can be a major component.”

Writing in 2014 for the peer-reviewed medical journal Psychiatric Services, Dr. Dennis McCarty and Dr. Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon elaborate even further: “Substance abuse intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) are ambulatory services for individuals with substance use disorders who do not meet diagnostic criteria for residential or inpatient substance abuse treatment or for those who are discharged from 24-hour care in an inpatient treatment facility and continue to need more support than the weekly or bi-weekly sessions provided in traditional outpatient care. IOP services offer a minimum of 9 hours of service per week in three, 3-hour sessions; however, some programs provide more sessions per week and/or longer sessions per day, and many programs become less intensive over time. Because services are provided in outpatient settings, the duration may be longer than that required for inpatient services. IOPs allow individuals to remain in their own homes and communities, which may improve their adjustment to community life.”

Simply put: Outpatient treatment offers basic therapeutic services for individuals needing treatment for a drug and/or alcohol problem, but the structure is such that those individuals can live at home and commute, or stay in a treatment facility’s sober living community. During inpatient treatment, patients are engaged in programming that includes group therapy, one-on-one counseling, educational lectures, psychotherapeutic sessions and other means of rehabilitation that can range from recreational outings to 12 Step meeting attendance to fitness therapy, depending on the individual facility.

Outpatient treatment is often offered as both an alternative to residential inpatient treatment, or as a continuation of it. In the case of the former, according to an article on the mental health website PsychCentral, the patient is afforded greater leniency to continue meeting vocational and family obligations, which can be beneficial if leaving for an extended period of inpatient treatment isn’t optional: “Outpatient programs provide patients with more freedom of movement which allows them to maintain a regular commitment to family, work, and educational responsibilities. Because of the ability to go home after a daily or evening program, patients are able to have a greater level of privacy and anonymity. They often do not need to explain a prolonged absence to friends, coworkers, or family members.”

However, there are drawbacks as well, the article points out: “Unlike residential treatment programs, patients are not provided with the safe, secure environment that isolates them from negatively influencing factors. Patients return to their own environments after outpatient drug or alcohol treatment, and must voluntarily abstain from drug or alcohol use, which requires a greater amount of diligence.”

Is Outpatient Addiction Treatment Better?

what is outpatient addiction treatmentWhen it comes to treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, it’s better not to think of any particular method as being “better” than any other. Although more is generally regarded as ideal — according to the NIDA, “generally, for residential or outpatient treatment, participation for less than 90 days is of limited effectiveness, and treatment lasting significantly longer is recommended for maintaining positive outcomes” — that’s not always practical, feasible or affordable.

And even when it is, some patients aren’t willing to fully commit to residential inpatient treatment, and that’s OK. For those individuals it’s important to keep in mind that if outpatient groups is the initial choice for addiction treatment, it doesn’t have to be the only choice. Most treatment facilities are more than willing to work with individuals who come to them for help in an outpatient setting, with the understanding that if the individual is unable to stay sober, they may be recommended for higher levels of care, which would then include residential inpatient treatment.

By the same token, given that the NIDA recommends longer treatment stays to be more effective, transitioning from an inpatient program to an outpatient program, which may include residing in a sober living community, is a way of extending the safety net of treatment. As Nicole Arzt, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writes for the online medical site WebMD, “This step-down in care balances independence with support and accountability,” and for these individuals or those who choose outpatient treatment as their first attempt to get clean and sober, “outpatient treatment can involve therapy, group counseling, or a 12-step program. These sessions typically focus on substance abuse education, relapse prevention, stress management, communication skills, and goal setting. Some people also transition to outpatient care after completing an inpatient episode.”

In conclusion, what is outpatient addiction treatment? Simply put, one of many paths to sobriety. It’s certainly not the most intensive, but it can and does work for those who have the discipline to apply the therapeutic tools this particular form of treatment offers. At the same time, it allows those individuals to continue to engage in their daily lives, or build upon the foundation of recovery they began through a residential inpatient process.