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Learn / What Is an IOP: Questions and Answers

What Is an IOP: Questions and Answers

By 
Hannah Friedman
|
 August 17th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

In the context of mental health, IOP stands for “intensive outpatient program.” But what does that phrase mean? What is an IOP, after all?

IOPs offer more intensive care than weekly therapy sessions, but more flexibility than inpatient rehab. These programs are a great option for many people—but are they right for you? This guide can help you decide whether an IOP would be a good fit. 

What Is an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)?

Intensive outpatient care is an approach to addiction1 or mental health recovery. In an IOP, patients live off-site but attend therapy during the day. Unlike inpatient treatment, this approach lets you go about your life while you heal. You can go to work or school, see friends, and even live at home. 

During the program, you’ll work with several mental health and addiction specialists. You might also attend classes to learn important life skills. Some IOPs include recreational activities, like going to the beach or seeing a movie.

IOPs can also serve as transitional care after you finish residential treatment, but before you return home. In that case, you might stay in a sober living home during the program.

Who Is a Good Fit for an IOP?

IOPs are a common treatment option2 for many mental health issues. They’re especially effective for certain diagnoses: 

  • Addiction
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders

However, your diagnosis isn’t the only thing that determines what type of treatment you need. IOPs might be a good fit for several types of clients:

  • People whose insurance won’t cover residential treatment
  • Those with ongoing work, school, or family commitments
  • People with strong support networks outside of the program

IOPs aren’t right for everyone. Certain people require more intensive treatment:

  • Patients with severe mental health symptoms, like suicidal ideation
  • Clients just entering addiction treatment who need medical care during withdrawal
  • People without strong community support

Like residential rehab, every IOP for mental health is different. It’s important to look for a program that aligns with your unique needs and goals. 

How Do IOPs Work?

Most IOPs offer several different services:3

  • Case management
  • Talk therapy
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Support groups
  • Medical care
  • Psychiatry
  • Recreational activities
  • Life skills classes
  • 24-hour crisis intervention services

For adult clients, IOPs include at least 9 hours of treatment per week.4 For teens, they include a minimum of 6 weekly hours. Beyond those thresholds, the exact number of treatment hours varies widely. 

The length of your treatment depends on your progress. Many IOPs last 12-16 weeks. However, you can choose to end treatment early or stay in the program longer.

What Can I Expect in an IOP?

Assessment

You’ll begin your IOP with a comprehensive health assessment.5 Your provider will use this information to design a care plan that meets your needs. 

In the assessment and planning process, you may work closely with a case manager. They’ll determine which services you need, and organize your schedule. They might match you with a therapist, enroll you in life skills classes, or connect you with other service providers outside the program. 

Building a Support Network

If you live at home during your IOP, you’ll have more access to friends and family than you would during inpatient rehab. And if you live in group housing, you’ll be close to other people in recovery. To maximize the benefits of these environments, IOPs encourage clients to build strong relationships.6 

You can achieve this in a few ways. For instance, you might attend family therapy or join a support group. You can also practice your new coping skills in the context of work, school, and friendships outside the program.

Aftercare

Experts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) note that IOPs “should not be the sole approach for any client;7 instead, they need to be one step along a continuum of care.” During initial treatment, your care team will help you plan for what comes next. 

The transition out of an IOP may be less jarring than the end of inpatient treatment. While your schedule will change, you won’t have to move right away. You can stay in touch with your immediate support network, including members of your care team and other people who attended the program. 

What Is an IOP for Substance Use or Addiction Treatment?

IOPs for addiction typically include specialized services:

  • 12-Step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and similar
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)8 for opioid addiction
  • Relapse prevention planning
  • Education about the consequences of substance abuse

Although IOPs can treat addiction, this type of care has an extra level of risk. When you first enter recovery, you might not have a strong support network. Or, you might have close relationships with people who encourage you to use drugs. If you live at home throughout treatment, maintaining those relationships can increase your risk of relapse.9 

You don’t have to begin recovery with an IOP. For example, you might attend a medical detox program or inpatient treatment center first. In that case, an IOP might be part of your stepped-down care plan. This approach gives you time to kickstart recovery before you begin rebuilding your community at home.

What Is an IOP for Mental Health?

In an IOP for mental health, you can live at home while you attend intensive treatment. These programs connect you with mental health experts and with other patients who understand some part of your experience. You may not have the same diagnosis as the people around you, but you can still share mutual support. 

IOPs for mental health may focus on a specific therapy, instead of using a wide range of treatments. For example, people with personality or mood disorders often benefit from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).10 If you’re healing from one of these conditions, you can look for a more specialized treatment program.

Are IOPs and PHPs the Same?

IOPs and partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) are 2 different types of treatment. The key difference between them is the amount of time patients spend in therapy. PHPs offer more intensive care,11 including at least 20 weekly treatment hours. 

Despite their differences, PHPs and IOPs have a lot in common:

  • Patients live off-site, so they have more freedom than they would in residential rehab.
  • Treatment is usually more affordable than residential care.
  • Clients can attend several different types of therapy.

Benefits and Advantages of IOPs

Unlike inpatient care, IOPs allow you to integrate your treatment experience into your daily life. This approach has several advantages:

  • Flexibility: You don’t have to step away from work, school, or family commitments to start recovery.
  • Accessibility: Some insurance plans will cover IOPs but not residential treatment, making them financially accessible to more clients. IOPs tend to be more affordable than PHPs.
  • Ease of transition: Many residential rehabs also offer IOPs, meaning you can easily step down your care after completing inpatient treatment.
  • Social support: You can maintain long-term relationships with loved ones throughout treatment.
  • Discretion: IOPs make it easier to keep your recovery private. You can continue living at home, going to work, and attending social functions while you heal.

Are IOPs Effective? Evidence and Success Rates

Data shows that IOPs are as effective as residential care12 for people with addiction. In both approaches, 50-70% of patients maintain abstinence after treatment. 

Both residential care and IOPs may be less effective13 for people with co-occurring disorders or physical health issues. For these patients, experts recommend attending an IOP in addition to more intensive treatment.14 

These programs can also have positive side effects that go beyond their primary goals. One anonymous client explains how treatment in an IOP empowered her to support her community:15 

“If I were to tell myself from a few months ago how much we’ve changed, I’m not even sure that she’d believe me. It gives a hope that I haven’t had in a long time and I couldn’t be more grateful for the family I created here. And with everything I’ve learnt, I’ve also been able to tell my friends who are also going through hard times some of the things I’ve learnt and they really liked them!”

How to Find an Intensive Outpatient Program

As you research IOPs, remember that every program is unique. You can choose a center based on your unique needs. To start your search, consider a few criteria:

  • Location 
  • Types of therapy the program offers
  • Specific diagnoses the center treats
  • Length of treatment
  • Insurance options
  • Total cost

Many insurance plans will cover this type of treatment. Because IOPs don’t provide round-the-clock care, they’re often less expensive than other programs. 

IOPs are available at nearly 50% of all addiction treatment centers16 in the U.S. Whether you’re looking for a program near your home, your residential rehab, or somewhere else, there are plenty of options available. 

Is an IOP Right for Me?

IOPs can help you recover from addiction and many mental health issues. However, they’re not for everyone. To determine whether an IOP might be a good fit, you can start by responding to a few questions: 

  • Do you have a strong support network at home?
  • Do you have any ongoing medical needs?
  • When you start recovery, will you need to go through withdrawal?
  • Do you have any co-occurring mental health diagnoses?
  • How severe are your mental health symptoms?
  • What additional types of treatment options are you planning to try?

Your answers will help you prepare to speak with an expert. Contact an intensive outpatient program to find out if this type of treatment meets your needs.


Frequently Asked Questions About Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs)

Are IOPs confidential?

Yes—to some degree. Your care team is legally bound by privacy laws. However, the administration may disclose some information to your insurance provider if they’re covering your treatment. What’s more, the other patients in your program aren’t obligated to keep anything confidential. And if you all live in the same area, you may even have mutual friends. While providers may encourage clients to respect each other’s privacy, they can’t control what happens outside of treatment.

What types of insurance do IOPS accept?

It depends on your program. Talk to your provider’s admissions team to learn about your options. The good news is that most insurance plans cover some amount of addiction treatment. And because these programs are less expensive than residential treatment, insurers are even more likely to cover IOPs.

Can I attend an IOP via telehealth?

Some providers are experimenting with remote IOPs. Preliminary research suggests that this type of treatment might be effective. However, we need more data to know for sure. Because telehealth is so new, it’s hard to predict what its effects will be in the long term.


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