Where to Find Help: Outpatient vs. Inpatient Programs

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Where to Find Help: Outpatient vs. Inpatient Programs

The terms “inpatient” and “outpatient” aren’t unique to the field of addiction. In fact, these are terms that could be applied to almost every single type of medical or mental health intervention a person could get, and they have a deep impact on the overall cost and treatment outcome of someone who needs care. Experts like those at Medicare encourage all health care consumers to understand the difference between inpatient and outpatient care, so they’ll know what charges they’re responsible for and can make good decisions about their health. But when it comes to addiction care, the choices can be a little confusing. In fact, it might be difficult for families in need to really understand what differentiates one type of care from another, and they may be equally unsure about which type of care is best for the person with the addiction. This article might help to clear up that confusion.



The vast majority of addiction treatment facilities in this country provide outpatient care. In fact, in the 2012 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services, 80 to 81 percent of facilities that were contacted provided outpatient care.

In a way, this makes sense, as outpatient programs provide very real treatment for people with addictions, without removing them from their careers, families and communities. People who participate in programs like this work with providers located in their local areas, and they obtain care during daytime hours, and they return home at night. There’s no hospitalization involved, and no change of address is required, but people do have the opportunity to work with experts on their issues of addiction.

Outpatient programs can vary significantly in terms of intensity and time commitment. For example, people who participate in so-called “intensive outpatient treatment” programs are often required to spend up to 30 hours each and every week in their treatment programs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and they might also have 24-hour access to a team in case of a crisis.

As part of their involvement in this program, they might access:

  • Individual counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Addiction education
  • Substance abuse monitoring
  • Vocational training
  • Medication management
  • Case management
  • Parenting skills training
  • Psychotherapy
  • Psychiatric evaluations
  • Support group integration

Participants in programs like this might continue to live at home, but it’s clear that they’re required to do a significant amount of work on a daily basis in order to overcome their addictions. They might not be able to work, care for the family or otherwise return to their day-to-day lives while they participate in a program like this, but they might have free time on the evenings and weekends in which to live a life that seems relatively unimpeded.

Low-intensity programs, on the other hand, might provide a significantly smaller amount of therapeutic contact. Clients who participate in programs like this might be assigned to a counselor, and they might go to sessions multiple times per week and do support group work in the evenings, but they might be able to work, spend time with family or otherwise live a life that’s similar to the life lived before the addiction took hold.

Since all outpatient programs provide at least some level of free time for people who have addictions, they’re best for people who have a strong support system at home and a deep-set desire to get better. Experts refer to these people as high-functioning addicts, as they’re able to keep some of the most detrimental aspects of addiction from impacting their lives. They still need help in order to get better, but they also tend to have the strength to continue to live at home and face their daily demons while they’re trying to recover from an addiction. This isn’t the case for all addicts at all times, but for some, this kind of care is best.

These additional therapies can provide people with skills they can use to beat back stress, and they can put people in touch with their inner strength and creativity, and that might also be protective when an urge to use begins to strike.

Inpatient programs also provide around-the-clock supervision in a way that’s just not possible in an outpatient program. People living on the grounds of a treatment facility can’t just slip out to meet a dealer or buy a quick drink. They live in a totally sober environment with help available at all hours. For some, this makes all the difference. In fact, it could be vital for people who have very severe cases of addiction that just couldn’t be mended through less-intensive techniques. They need intensive care, and they’ll get it in an inpatient program.

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