General Outpatient Programs vs. Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs)

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When it comes to addiction treatment, there are many different programs and services that treatment facilities offer. It can be challenging to narrow down treatment options for an individual or their loved one. 

For example, individuals with severe substance abuse may benefit significantly from a residential (inpatient) program. However, inpatient treatment is not necessarily feasible for individuals with personal responsibilities, like work or childcare, that cannot be put on hold. On the other hand, outpatient programs may not be intense or structured enough for those working to establish lasting abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. 

Fortunately, there are in-between options available, such as intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Comparing and contrasting general outpatient programs with IOPs can be beneficial when trying to understand and narrow down treatment options for recovery. 

The Continuum of Care

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the continuum of care “refers to a treatment system in which clients enter treatment at a level appropriate to their needs and then step up to more intense treatment or down to less intense treatment as needed.” 

Nearly all addiction treatment programs utilize a continuum of care. With this treatment system, individuals can transfer between different levels of care as they progress throughout their recovery journey. The journal states:

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has established five main levels in a continuum of care for substance abuse treatment:

  • Level 0.5: Early intervention services
  • Level I: Outpatient services
  • Level II: Intensive outpatient/Partial hospitalization services
  • Level III: Residential/Inpatient services
  • Level IV: Medically managed intensive inpatient services

What Are General Outpatient Programs?

Level I of the continuum of care consists of outpatient programs. Outpatient treatment programs are designed for clients to participate in treatment sparingly throughout the week and to return home after treatment services have been completed each day. They are the most flexible type of treatment program, as they work around a client's schedule. 

For example, individuals who have to attend school or work during the day can schedule their outpatient treatment sessions during the evening. Some may even schedule sessions during the weekend. The availability of outpatient treatment is dependent on the treatment facility. 

Duration and Services

According to the aforementioned article, outpatient treatment programs often last from 45 to 60 days, providing one to two treatment sessions per week. Each session lasts one to two hours. Also, depending on the facility, many outpatient programs offer family therapies, holistic services, group counseling, and more. 

Who Can Benefit From Outpatient Programs?

Outpatient treatment is most commonly used as a step down from higher levels of treatment within the continuum of care. For instance, individuals who have recently completed an IOP, partial hospitalization program (PHP), or residential treatment program may utilize general outpatient programs as a transitional phase in their recovery. Outpatient programs often provide relapse prevention plans and aftercare plans for clients to utilize and reference throughout long-term recovery. 

However, some individuals also enter addiction treatment through an outpatient program. Individuals working to recover from mild substance abuse or mild symptoms of substance use disorder (SUD) may also benefit from an outpatient program. Typically, individuals who utilize these programs must have a stable home environment – free from substance use – as well as a stable support system that they can access while at home. 

What Are Intensive Outpatient Programs?

Level II of the continuum of care consists of IOPs and PHPs. IOPs bridge the gap between outpatient and residential care. They are designed for clients with SUD 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." While the qualities of IOPs vary depending on the facility that offers them, they all work to reduce the severity of an individual's symptoms through recurrent, intensive monitoring and support. 

Duration and Services

The typical duration for IOP ranges from 30 to 90 days. However, program length can be tailored to an individual's unique needs and recovery goals. Sessions are provided three to five times per week, lasting three to six hours per session. IOPs rarely differ from outpatient programs in services offered. In addition to the services offered by general outpatient programs, IOPs may also utilize dual-diagnosis services and trauma-informed care. Similarly, these services may be offered more intensely compared to outpatient services. 

Who Can Benefit From Intensive Outpatient Programs?

Referring back to the article by Psychiatric Services, IOPs are often used as an alternative to residential treatment. The journal explains that IOPs are “direct services for people with substance use disorders or co-occurring mental and substance use disorders who do not require medical detoxification or 24-hour supervision.” However, following detox services, individuals may enter an IOP to address the underlying causes of their substance abuse and reduce future relapse risk. 

What Program Should My Loved One Utilize?

Before knowing what treatment is best for an individual or their loved one, it is important to identify the severity of substance abuse and associated symptoms. Often, the best way to know what treatment program will be most effective involves seeking an evaluation from an addiction professional. 

In general, the more severe an individual's tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and substance abuse consequences are, the higher the level of treatment they must utilize in the continuum of care. Individuals with severe symptoms who also have to tend to personal responsibilities can utilize an IOP rather than committing to a residential program away from home. IOPs can often work around a client's schedule, making them a great option for those struggling with unmanageable symptoms. 

Choosing a treatment program for you or a loved one can seem daunting, especially with many different programs available. Becoming familiar with the continuum of care for substance abuse treatment can help. Outpatient treatment is less structured and intensive than intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), allowing for greater independence and flexibility with schedules. IOPs offer a step down from residential treatment, valuable for individuals struggling with severe symptoms. Pathways Recovery Center provides a number of treatment programs, including outpatient, intensive outpatient, residential, and detox programs. We are dedicated to providing individualized treatment within each program tailored to your unique needs. If you or a loved one is seeking recovery, call us today at (888) 771-0966 to learn more.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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