inpatient vs outpatient

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment – A Complete Guide

Addiction to heroin, prescription medications, alcohol, and other drugs can have life-altering consequences for patients, especially if they have families to support. Once someone decides to seek help, the only question is which path of treatment may be most effective for them. There are many obstacles to treatment, and some patients simply need a treatment option that gives them robust support while they go about their daily lives.

The differences between inpatient and outpatient treatment could make the difference between success and relapse for patients. Although inpatient centers offer incredible therapy and 24/7 support for patients, they also take away patients’ independence. Outpatient treatment provides a more realistic option for patients who can balance work, family, and treatment appointments.

Inpatient Treatment Options

inpatient addiction treatmentInpatient programs are overnight residential programs that are typically 28 to 90 days and include room and board. Inpatient centers provide plenty of activities for patients to do independently, but they also have significant amounts of structured time. They have individual and group therapy at scheduled times, as well as other appointments and treatments.

Inpatient programs include medical treatment for symptoms of withdrawal and use medically assisted detox as the first step to recovery. Some patients may need to complete this step in a hospital or detox facility; others may be able to detox in conjunction with an outpatient treatment center like Right Path Addiction Centers.

This process can be difficult, especially for patients with severe addiction. However, Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) is known to be highly effective, especially for opioid addiction.

Inpatient treatment allows doctors and therapists to monitor your progress throughout the entire stay. Staff can check in with you about how you are feeling, and you don’t have to worry about missing an appointment. If you are showing withdrawal symptoms or becoming depressed, staff can readjust your treatment within hours or even minutes.

Staff can enact safeguards to help keep you from relapsing. An inpatient program strictly limits the number of visitors and gifts you can receive, preventing you from accessing drugs or alcohol while in treatment. You are also typically limited in who you can contact, which can be extremely helpful for patients whose close friends and family also abuse drugs or alcohol.

Benefits of Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is more common for mild to moderate opioid and alcohol addiction cases. Outpatient treatment also starts with detox, and in mild addiction cases, outpatient detox takes just a few days. Once the immediate medical concerns are addressed, the patient begins counseling to start focusing on underlying needs.

Although MAT is used in inpatient treatment as well, it is even more essential to outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment plans have less time for therapy and other interventions, so patients rely more on MAT to avoid relapses.

However, outpatient treatment programs can still provide a blend of therapy methods, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing, to get the patient on the path to recovery.

Outpatient treatment includes some of the same medications as inpatient treatment, like buprenorphine and suboxone. Doctors can prescribe additional medications to handle anxiety and depression that occur as a result of withdrawal.

However, outpatient treatment is typically less than 15 hours a week. This allows the patient to stay at home, continuing their work and care for their families. It also works well as a follow-up program for individuals who have completed inpatient treatment but need ongoing therapy and medical support as they return to everyday life.

Considering Cost

Because they include room and board, inpatient treatment options can be tens of thousands of dollars, which is much more expensive than outpatient treatment. Many insurance plans do not cover the full cost of inpatient treatment, leaving families with huge bills.

There is also the additional hidden cost of being unable to work while in a residential program. Although the Family Medical Leave Act protects most employees’ right to return to their jobs after completing an inpatient addiction treatment program, many employees are ineligible for sick leave during that time.

Outpatient treatment remains the most affordable option for families, especially families that rely on the patient’s income. Outpatient treatment may be mostly or entirely covered by insurance, including Medicaid. Although outpatient care is usually more long-term than inpatient care, the total cost may still be much lower.

Patient Privacy

addiction treatmentAddiction is a sensitive issue, and the stigma surrounding it is pervasive in all levels of society. Both inpatient and outpatient centers are highly committed to protecting patient privacy so you can return to your life without fear.

Because federal laws usually prohibit discrimination based on medical needs or disability, your employer cannot fire you for seeking treatment for addiction. Your employer is also obligated to keep your medical information private. However, some patients still do not feel comfortable telling their employers they need to take a leave of absence to receive inpatient care.

Outpatient services may be a better option for those who are concerned about privacy. Outpatient centers are usually small, discreet offices that are conveniently located to reduce travel time. Most patients can go and receive services in the afternoons and evenings so that they can minimize interruptions at work and home.

Overall Effectiveness

There is no one-size-fits-all option for addiction recovery. Inpatient treatment provides 24/7 support, which may be medically necessary for some severe cases. Inpatient treatment also may work well for patients who need to separate themselves from other drug users in their life.

However, the restrictions of inpatient care can be suffocating and do not allow patients to learn to manage their choices independently. At the very least, inpatient residents likely need continued outpatient support to maximize their chances of success after returning home.

Outpatient services can be highly effective for patients who can continue to work and rely on their families for support. Both use well-researched therapy methods and medical assistance, providing an invaluable lifeline. The combination of effectiveness and affordability make it an excellent option for individuals with families at home.

Either way, you need to free yourself from addiction as soon as possible. Getting the support you need can only happen when you make a choice to seek help. By starting an addiction treatment program as soon as possible, you can restore your life, your career, and your relationships with friends and family.


Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.

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