what is an outpatient program

What Is an Outpatient Program?

An outpatient program may be the solution you need if you’re struggling to recover from substance abuse and addiction. There are several types of outpatient programs, and many of which approach addiction recovery in their own way, but there are certain similar qualities when compared to inpatient programs.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at one of the most common questions we hear – what is an outpatient program?

What Is an Outpatient Program?

Approximately 21 million Americans have an addiction of some type. Of those, only a small percentage–about 10 percent–receive treatment. There are various types of treatment for addiction, but they fall into two main categories: inpatient and outpatient.

If you are struggling with an addiction, you might wonder which type is right for you. We are going to focus on outpatient programs to learn more about them, but you will need to work with your mental healthcare team to determine whether inpatient or outpatient care is going to be more effective and more feasible for you. Remember that the goal is to be in recovery from your addiction, so the program that is attainable for you is the one that you should pursue.

So, what is an outpatient program?

How Does Outpatient Rehab Work?

Outpatient rehab works similarly to inpatient rehab in the sense that the individual getting the services is participating in individual counseling, group therapy, and, if warranted, medication to help them recover from their addiction. If you are in an outpatient program, you will continue to live at home. In some cases, you’ll be able to continue working, caring for children, and otherwise participate in your everyday activities, but in other cases, the outpatient sessions will take up a large portion of your day.

There are two main types of outpatient treatment: traditional and intensive. As you might imagine, intensive outpatient treatment has more frequent sessions and more care from mental health professionals and addiction specialists. Someone in a traditional outpatient program is more likely to be able to keep their job and other commitments during the treatment program.

Both types of outpatient rehabilitation take at least 90 days. Some treatment programs last longer, sometimes substantially longer.

Who Does Outpatient Treatment Work For?

Whether outpatient or inpatient treatment is better for a particular person is a decision best made by the individual with the support of his or her doctors. With that being said, there are certain people for whom an outpatient program might work better. They include:

  • Those who have not been struggling with addiction for long. A person who has just begun to experiment with substances or who is just beginning to get into the dependency stage might not need treatment that is as intense as an inpatient rehab program. 
  • Those who have already gone through an inpatient program. Many people will utilize an outpatient program as aftercare to prevent a relapse shortly after completing inpatient treatment.
  • Those who have relapsed after going through inpatient or outpatient treatment. Relapse is a normal and common part of recovery, and those who go through it might need outpatient care to move to the next phase of the recovery process.
  • Those who have a solid support system at home. Friends and family are an integral part of helping the individual get onto a path of recovery. When an inpatient setting isn’t possible, a personal support system is a vital part of the outpatient program.
  • Those who have to work or attend to children. The truth is that not everyone can leave their job or their family in order to move to an inpatient treatment setting. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Outpatient Care

If you are having trouble deciding whether to have inpatient or outpatient rehab care, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of an outpatient program:


  • You might be able to continue working. This can be a big advantage if you are the sole breadwinner in your family or if you need your income to meet your basic needs (or your treatment).
  • Outpatient treatment is markedly less expensive than inpatient treatment. If you are paying privately or if your health insurance has limits on what they will cover, then this might be a consideration. 
  • There is less of a stigma and more privacy. If you are in an outpatient treatment program, you will have more privacy in the sense that others will not know that you are being treated in a rehabilitation center unless you tell them. 


  • Less support is included. You will not be surrounded 24/7 by people who are there to support you, so you will need to create your own support system with the people who are around you.
  • You may have fewer services offered. Inpatient programs often include complementary therapies like art therapy, music therapy, animal therapy, yoga, acupuncture, and others. Other services that you might not be able to take advantage of include job placement assistance, nutritional support, parenting classes, and constant medication management.
  • It might be less effective. Because there is less support and supervision and fewer services offered, an outpatient program might be less effective than an inpatient program. One small study showed that 35 percent of people with alcoholism relapsed after six months of outpatient treatment.

The Final Decision

Choosing whether to have inpatient or outpatient treatment is a big decision. It might be that the decision is largely made for you by circumstances that you cannot change. For example, if you simply cannot take time off from your job or you cannot afford inpatient care, then you might end up in an outpatient program by default. Similarly, if you have no support system at home and your insurance will cover inpatient treatment, then you might find no reason to consider the outpatient option.

Talk to your family doctor, mental health counselor, psychologist, addiction specialist, or whichever healthcare professional is the one to help you make these decisions. Consider your finances, your job, your obligations at home, and your own preferences. Keep in mind that treatment, whether inpatient or outpatient, is just one phase of recovery, and it’s the shortest phase. Once your acute treatment is over, it will be largely maintained, and you will need to have a good foundation to grow from. Either type of program can give that to you, so the goal is to choose the one that will suit your needs and fit your life the best.