Things People Won’t Tell You About Intensive Outpatient Programs

When searching for treatment for a substance use disorder you are likely to encounter intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) as an option. This is a type of treatment that offers less support than residential care but more than traditional outpatient counseling. Until you experience it, understanding exactly what an IOP is can be difficult. Before making a choice, there are a few important facts you need to know about IOPs—things that may not be obvious.

An intensive outpatient program, or IOP, for treating and managing substance use disorders is just one of many options for care. It is not the same as partial hospitalization, traditional outpatient care, or addiction counseling. An IOP is an outpatient service that provides several weeks of treatment, several days per week for hours at a time. It is intensive but less so than residential care.

No single type of addiction treatment is effective for everyone, and the best care matches the needs of the individual receiving it. Some people benefit greatly from IOPs, while others are better suited to less or more intensive treatment. An IOP is the right choice for many, but before you make it yours, be sure you understand what it really means.

Not everyone who makes this choice fully understands what it means to participate in an IOP, so here are a few things you may not have been told yet.

1. An Intensive Outpatient Program is a Time Commitment.

The duration and hours per week involved in completing an IOP will vary depending on the facility and specific program, but in general intensive means this is a time commitment. A typical program may last for 12 weeks, with meetings, sessions, and activities several times per week, for at least an hour or two at a time.

According to research that has determined what makes treatment for substance use disorders most effective, the time spent participating in a program is essential and must be for at least three months. The exact duration of course depends on the needs of the individual. However, the general consensus from research is that a minimum of three months of participation in a treatment program is needed to stop or significantly reduce substance use.

2. An IOP is Not for Someone Who Needs Medically-Supervised Detox.

There are different stages in the continuum of care for substance use disorders. An individual may start at any one of the stages and move up or down in care intensity. An IOP is the right stage for many people, but not for those who still need significant support detoxing from drugs or alcohol. Most IOPs do not include this step and require that the participant already have gone through detox. But, if you have completed detox, then an IOP may be the next step.

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3. IOPs Offer More Than Just Counseling and Support Groups.

The main types of care that a patient may get from standard outpatient treatment are individualized therapy or counseling and participation in support groups. These are useful, but some people need more options. It is a misconception to say that only residential treatment programs can offer more variety of services.

Most IOPs offer as many different types of services as a residential program. Core services include group therapy, skill development, relapse prevention, stress management and coping strategies, support groups, family and couples therapy, individual behavioral therapy, and psychoeducation. Additionally, many programs offer medical and health care, holistic care, alternative and creative therapies, recreation and group activities, lifestyle changes, independent living skills, and goal setting.

4. Intensive Outpatient Programs Can Be Just as Effective as Inpatient Care.

Research bears out the fact that an IOP can be as effective as residential treatment. One group of researchers conducted a review of multiple studies that looked at the outcomes for patients in IOPs and residential programs. The overwhelming conclusion was that the outcomes were comparable and that both types of programs helped patients cease or reduce substance use.

5. An IOP May Be Just One Part of Your Journey.

In the continuum of care, an IOP may be just one step. An IOP will not cure addiction or guarantee that a person will never relapse. Many people go through different stages of treatment before reaching stability. An IOP can be used as a transition between residential care and weekly counseling or support groups. Or, it may be a stepping stone to more intensive residential programs.

If you are trying to figure out what type of care is best for you or someone you care about, be sure you understand all the options and where they fit with your current needs. Everyone is different and may be at any stage of recovery, so make a choice based on your situation and what a treatment program can offer.