Drug Rehab: Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

Intensive outpatient care is designed to help recovering addicts stay sober and improve their overall mental well-being through therapy, peer support, and additional life skills education. An intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be recommended for those with a less severe addiction or recovering addicts who have just completed a residential program.

What Is an Intensive Outpatient Program?

An Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is one of the available addiction treatment options available when recovering from substance abuse. The IOP Program is designed to assist a recovering addict who has a mild to moderate addiction, or who has recently completed a residential treatment program.

“IOPs have emerged as a critical facet of 21st-century addiction treatment for people who need a more intensive level of service than usual outpatient treatment, and they allow participants to avoid or step down successfully from inpatient services.” 

-From a 2014 study published in Psychiatric Services, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association reported,

Each week, the recovering addict will visit the treatment center for a minimum of 10 hours. The level of care received by the patient will vary based on their individual treatment plan; your IOP experience can be customized to fit your unique recovery needs and goals. In some cases, telehealth appointments are even available for online-based intensive outpatient treatment.

The main types of care that the patient will receive during daily IOP visits include:

  • One-on-one therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Life skills education and practice
  • Medication management (when applicable)
  • Additional peer support services

Note: An IOP does NOT offer detoxification services. However, IOP medical staff can usually provide a referral to a nearby detox facility.

Intensive Outpatient VS Partial Hospitalization Programs

When seeking outpatient treatment services for substance use disorder, you will discover that there are two main types of outpatient care.

The most common outpatient treatment options are:

  • Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
  • Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

The main difference between these two outpatient treatment types is the level of care provided. Overall, a Partial Hospitalization Program offers a higher level of care to the recovering addict, with a focus on physical healthcare and treatment. A PHP may be the better option for someone struggling with co-occurring disorders or in need of medical assistance alongside addiction recovery.

While both types of outpatient programs allow the patient to visit a facility for treatment services and return home each night, they also differ in time commitment requirements and services offered. An IOP requires roughly 10-15 hours per week, whereas a PHP can require an average of 25-30 weekly hours.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment VS Residential Drug Rehab Programs

The major difference between intensive outpatient treatment and residential treatment is both the level of care provided and the time commitment required.

An intensive outpatient center—sometimes called “day treatment”—allows a patient to return home at the end of each day. A residential treatment program is a type of inpatient program where the recovering addict will live for an average of 30 days or more.

Additionally, an intensive outpatient program is sometimes recommended after a person completes a residential program. The IOP will act as a step down from inpatient care as the recovering addict adjusts to life without the structure of inpatient rehab.

What Type of Therapy to Expect in an Outpatient Program

Mental health is a major focus of intensive outpatient programs or IOPs. However, different IOPs may vary in the specific types of therapies offered. It’s a good idea to check ahead to see what types of therapy an IOP offers or specializes in, particularly if you have any preferences.

Substance abuse disorder often accompanies mental health issues and mental illness. With that in mind, these different types of therapy are aimed at helping recovering addicts improve their overall behavioral health.

Individual Therapy

One-on-one therapy sessions will make up a decent part of the day in intensive outpatient treatment. These individual counseling sessions will focus on helping the patient improve their coping skills and establish better lifestyle habits.

The two most common types of individual therapy offered are:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A type of talk therapy that assists the patient with identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with improved coping strategies. CBT may include “homework,” in the form of self-led activities for the patient to work on outside of these sessions.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): A specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, DBT is designed to work with high-risk patients to help them first acknowledge the circumstances that contributed to their addiction. DBT may also include outside “homework” as the patient works through thought patterns and establishes better habits.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is a broad term that covers a few different types of counseling that will occur in a group setting. While an IOP will also offer individual counseling, group therapies can provide peer support and help the patient to feel less isolated in their recovery experience.

Some common types of group therapy will include:

  • Basic group therapy: Takes place in a small group of recovering addicts, guided by one mental health professional. Group therapy sessions are common at IOPs and are intended to provide a support system for the patients as they work through their treatment programs.
  • 12-step programs: Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a structured, step-by-step approach to recovery. These specialized support groups meet regularly and are also available outside of an intensive outpatient program.
  • Family therapy: Sometimes, broken family dynamics can be a contributing factor in substance abuse. Likewise, working through issues with family members can provide a more solid support system for the addict as they work on their recovery.

Complementary Therapies

Additional therapies designed to improve behavioral health may be included in the intensive outpatient program that you select.

Such additional therapies might include:

  • Mindfulness and yoga
  • Faith-based therapy
  • Fitness and nutrition counseling
  • Creative media (e.g. art, music, etc.)

If you are interested in a specific type of amenity or service with your intensive outpatient treatment, be sure to ask the facility ahead of time what types of additional therapies they might offer.

What Is the Average IOP Experience Like?

While the recovery process and day-to-day structure may differ between treatment facilities, the overall experience within intensive outpatient treatment will be similar.

Intensive Outpatient Therapy: Admissions Process

Every facility has its own set of guidelines and so the specifics may vary.

You will usually begin with paperwork and then receive some type of orientation. You may also be assigned to a primary doctor or medical professional who will be your main contact during your experience. Additionally, you may be invited to participate in some individual or group counseling sessions as you get acclimated on day one.

Your first day can feel a bit overwhelming, so it’s a good idea to ask any questions that might come up for you. The entire staff is there to support your recovery and provide you with adequate treatment. Be sure to speak up if you are unsure about anything.

A Typical Day in an Intensive Outpatient Program

Daily life for someone attending an IOP will be much less regimented than the schedule for someone in a residential program.

An example of an IOP treatment schedule may include:

  • 3 to 5 days each week
  • 3 hours of treatment for each visit (may occur daytime or evenings)
  • Individual and group therapy sessions
  • Medication management
  • Additional participation in bonus therapies, such as 12-step programs, creative clubs, life skills courses, etc.

How Long Does an Intensive Outpatient Program Last?

Most intensive outpatient programs last between 8 and 12 weeks. The patient will attend sessions anywhere from 3 to 4 days each week throughout the program, for roughly 2 – 5 hours each time.

IOP can be highly individualized to accommodate the patient’s individual needs, from their specific treatment plan to work schedules and family responsibilities. The length of time and intensity of your IOP experience will depend on your level of addiction, history of substance abuse (if any), and any additional needs that are specific to your overall treatment plan.

Are You Ready to Find the Right IOP?

If you think an intensive outpatient program sounds like the right choice for yourself or a loved one, take a look at the SAMHSA program locator to see what options are closest to you.

Frequently Asked Questions About IOPs

What is an IOP?

An IOP stands for Intensive Outpatient Program, and it is a type of rehabilitation service available for recovering alcoholics or drug addicts.

The main goals of the IOP are to help you…

  • Stay sober and avoid relapse
  • Create better, healthier habits and behaviors
  • Participate in support groups
  • Develop or strengthen your support system
  • Improve life skills

What are the differences between Inpatient and Outpatient facilities?

The main difference between inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities is the overall level of care offered between the two.

Inpatient programs are typically residential. Inpatient facilities typically offer much more structure than outpatient care and provide daily medical treatment and behavioral therapies. Inpatient facilities also offer detoxification services.

An outpatient facility allows the recovering addict to visit multiple times a week for medical care and behavioral therapy, but patients can resume normal activities such as work and return home after their sessions. Some, but not all, outpatient programs offer detox services.

How successful are Intensive Outpatient Programs?

Intensive outpatient programs are considered just as effective for treating substance use disorder as inpatient treatment. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) determined that Intensive Outpatient Programs are an essential part of ongoing addiction treatment, stating:

“IOPs have emerged as a critical facet of 21st-century addiction treatment for people who need a more intensive level of service than usual outpatient treatment, and they allow participants to avoid or step down successfully from inpatient services.”

How can you prevent relapse during or after an IOP?

Relapse prevention is an important focus of intensive outpatient programs. Through therapy, medication management, and additional support groups patients will establish better life habits to help them maintain their sobriety.

In addition, IOPs help recovering addicts build or strengthen their support systems and learn better ways to cope with stressors that might have led to drug use in the past.

Reviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Addiction Guide and ensures the quality of our website’s content and messaging.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

3 references
  1. McCarty, D., Braude, L., Lyman, D. R., Dougherty, R. H., Daniels, A. S., Ghose, S. S., & Delphin-Rittmon, M. E. (2014, June 1). Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Programs: Assessing the evidence. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.). Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152944/

  2. Treatment, C. for S. A. (1970, January 1). Substance abuse: Clinical issues in intensive outpatient treatment. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64093/

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, September 3). Treatment approaches for drug addiction drugfacts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction 

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