Inpatient vs. Outpatient Rehab: How Do They Differ?

Last Updated: October 27, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse generally fall into two broad categories – inpatient or outpatient care. How do residential and outpatient rehab programs compare? Both can be effective forms of rehabilitation and recovery, but inpatient and outpatient recovery differ in their different approaches.

Comparing inpatient vs outpatient mental health services, Inpatient rehab is an intensive program designed to treat severe addictions in a residential setting. Outpatient rehab is a part-time program designed to allow the recovering user to live at home and continue going to work or school during the day.

Both the addicted person and their loved ones must understand the differences between the inpatient and outpatient approach before deciding on a treatment program. Choosing the right option for every situation is critical because it can mean the difference between getting clean and staying clean or suffering a relapse after therapy is over and reverting to addictive behavior again.

How Do Residential and Outpatient Rehab Programs Compare?

Effective treatment for substance abuse addiction can be offered in an inpatient setting (in hospitals or specialized clinics, on a residential basis) or in an outpatient setting (in medical buildings or generalized clinics, on a walk-in/walk-out basis). This is the major difference between inpatient and outpatient services. The difference is clear compared to ambulatory care vs outpatient care. Each approach is beneficial for certain groups of people.

Both inpatient and outpatient care have the same goal: sobriety. The same can be said for ambulatory care vs outpatient care.

They also utilize the same methods to achieve it: detox therapy, self-analysis, and support from family and peers both during treatment and afterward. The main difference between inpatient and outpatient recovery is where they are offered.

Because it takes place in a closed, protected environment, inpatient treatment is often more thorough and intensive than outpatient treatment because it allows fewer chances for relapse during the trying early weeks of therapy.

That said, outpatient programs are more suitable for people whose responsibilities or financial situations prevent them from checking in to an inpatient facility. Inpatient vs outpatient rehab, how do they differ?

Here Are Some Disparities on Inpatient vs Outpatient Mental Health Care:

Inpatient Rehab center Outpatient rehab center
Highly intensive Less intense due to shorter schedules
Zero distractions from the outside world 10-12 hours a week at the facility
Patient required to live in the facility Patients return to their homes after sessions
expensive More affordable
For severe addictions For milder addiction cases
Disrupts daily schedules, career, and lifestyle Patient can maintain regular lifestyle
24/7 medical support Support is accessible in social circles

In most cases, addiction treatment experts recommend inpatient treatment as the better option for serious addiction. This is especially true for anyone who has co-occurring disorders (a mental or physical health problem in addition to an addiction problem) or an addiction that has lasted many years.

Those who are casual or social users or those who have only recently acquired dependence may do well in an outpatient facility, although this can pose some risks. In the following sections, we explain what the difference is between outpatient and inpatient care.

What Do Researches Say?

When discussing inpatient vs outpatient rehab, it is pertinent to use scientific information on inpatient vs outpatient rehab. A book, published in 1986, Advances in Alcohol & Substance Abuse, by Helen M.Annis, analyzed inpatient vs outpatient rehab services, the difference between inpatient and outpatient, and ambulatory care vs outpatient to find more conclusive answers on which drug and alcohol treatment information was most accurate.

Her Studies on Inpatient vs Outpatient Rehab Concluded That:

  • Whether inpatient or outpatient drug and alcohol service, there is no significant advantage over the other.
  • The rate of individuals who do not complete their treatment, also called the attrition rate, in inpatient or outpatient care is almost the same or slightly higher in inpatient ones.
  • Individuals treated as outpatients were less likely to be hospitalized or readmitted to rehabs.

U.S. Government report issued a directive that made drug and alcohol addiction treatment reimbursable, significantly affecting insurance companies. Anne Fletcher’s book, Inside Rehab, published in 2013, pointed out that insurance companies have developed a strategy that cut reimbursements for inpatient services because of the amenities being used.

Doctor and woman discussing rehab treatment details.

What Is Inpatient Rehab Treatment?

Inpatient rehabilitation is a treatment program for addicts carried out in a residential setting. The most defining characteristic of this approach is that the person checks into the facility and lives there while receiving intensive counseling and professional medical help.

Inpatient treatment may be offered either in a discrete and isolated wing of a larger hospital or health complex or in a standalone facility. Thus, one is putting their life “on hold” for the period in rehab and committing to staying for an agreed-upon time.

Most residential substance abuse treatment programs last from 28 to 90 days, depending on the needs of individual patients.

Inpatient treatment – taking a kind of “time out” from the pressures and temptations of daily life – can be very effective for those who want to become sober, especially those who have tried other outpatient approaches that didn’t work for them.

Patients in an inpatient setting typically receive much more thorough and intensive counseling and therapy because they do not go home at the end of the day. They also have access to medical and mental health professionals at all times. This type of intensive treatment also has the benefit of keeping addicts away from distractions and triggers so that they can focus solely on the healing process.

What Happens in an Inpatient Rehab Center?

Individual treatment regimens vary, but one can typically expect the following:

  • A full physical and psychological examination. This will help the doctors and counselors design a treatment program tailored to patients’ needs and gives them the highest likelihood of success.
  • A period of initial detox. The first week of staying in a residential treatment center will probably involve a period of medically supervised detoxification. This is usually the most difficult part of recovery because the body has to deal with the effects of stopping the substance use. These effects – withdrawal – can be unpleasant, so if necessary, they are managed with the help of medications administered by physicians experienced in recovery.
  • Access to phones and email may be restricted in some facilities. Individual computers and phones may be allowed in others, especially those providing treatment options longer than 30 days.
  • Contact with friends and family may be limited. This isn’t to cause isolation or loneliness, but to help the patient focus entirely on getting better and working on themselves during that time. When friends and family are brought back in, they are often given counseling alongside the addict so any issues related to the addiction can be discussed and overcome before the patient returns home.
  • Individual therapy. Depending on the facility and the treatment plan, individual counseling and therapies will be provided, including one-on-one counseling, group therapy, family therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to eliminate destructive patterns. There is also follow-up care, in which the patient is introduced to programs they can continue with after the period of residential treatment is complete. Such programs increase the person’s chances of successful rehabilitation when they leave the facility and transition back to “life in the world.

Pros and Cons of Inpatient Care

Inpatient vs outpatient rehab efficacy has been debated, with various experiences of the difference between inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol services. To make the best choice between inpatient or outpatient care, one must first understand the pros and cons.

Potential Benefits of Inpatient Treatment

  • A stable, sober environment. Because treatment takes place in a private facility with no access to the outside world, patients cannot take drugs unless medical professionals administer them to ease detox. This makes relapse during rehabilitation much less likely, if not impossible.
  • 24-hour monitoring by medical and psychiatric professionals during detox and recovery. This is important for people with long-standing addictions or who have co-occurring mental health issues.
  • Intensive group and individual therapy sessions. Support from both staff and other patients to help the patient reach and maintain sobriety
  • A high probability of success
  • Around-the-clock accountability in terms of activities, lifestyle, and diet
  • A more comprehensive treatment plan for co-occurring medical conditions
  • Complete removal from addiction triggers such as people, places, etc.
  • In inpatient care, you become part of a community that supports each other in overcoming addiction.
  • More time is spent working on one’s addiction every day.

Potential Drawbacks of Inpatient Treatment

  • The need to take time off from work, school, or family responsibilities
  • Higher cost of treatment because room and board are provided
  • Limited access to the outside world and potentially limited visiting time from family and loved ones during treatment
  • The structured program determines when you do anything.
  • Childcare duties – Parents who have young children at home but no viable childcare options may find that an outpatient situation is their only option.
  • Elderly parent care – Those who have elderly parents who rely on them may also have to return home at the end of the day to resume their duties.
  • Insurance issues – In some cases, patients may not get insurance coverage for an inpatient facility. While these costs are sometimes covered for those who have a real need, many inpatient rehabilitation centers simply aren’t affordable for those who have no or limited insurance coverage.
  • Lack of availability – Residential rehab facilities are available in most areas, but some smaller or rural areas may have limited availability for treatment. Many aren’t able to travel to the nearest facility because of time restraints or limited funds.
Healthcare workers discussing inpatient vs outpatient rehab pros and cons.

What Is Outpatient Rehab Treatment?

When discussing outpatient vs inpatient rehab, the differences in treatment take center stage. Outpatient alcohol treatment centers provide an excellent option for those who know that they need help to combat their addiction but cannot stop working or forego other responsibilities to get that help. Non-residential programs to treat alcoholism are offered in community health clinics, doctors’ or psychologists’ offices, or some residential addiction centers equipped to support outpatient care. This is the difference in outpatient vs inpatient rehab.

Who are these treatment types suitable for? First, let’s look at outpatient vs inpatient rehab suitability.

Outpatient treatment is appropriate for those whose addiction is not severe, whose lives are fairly stable, and who are willing to participate in and commit to the treatment plan. Outpatient treatment is also often recommended as a form of continuing care for those who have completed an inpatient treatment program to help maintain the long-term effects of recovery and prevent relapse.

In addition, the lengths and intensity of outpatient treatment programs (number of sessions per week) can often be flexible, which makes them more suitable for people who are unable to take extended absences from work or responsibilities. Outpatient treatment also tends to cost much less than inpatient care.

Outpatient care means that the person receives counseling and other therapies during the day, usually at set appointment times, and then leaves to go home after their sessions. Outpatient care may include one-on-one or group counseling sessions, the supervised use of medications to handle initial detoxification issues, and many forms of behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy can be an extremely effective treatment method in outpatient settings because it encourages patients to control their addiction.

Some Common Forms of This Type of Therapy Include:

  • Individual or group counseling. Individual sessions may focus on stopping alcohol use and managing aspects of life like a job and family relations. Group counseling sessions can also be effective due to the reinforcement one gains from peer discussion and support.
  • Family counseling can provide a safe environment in which the entire family can learn how to deal with the pain and suffering that results from addiction.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of treatment helps to prevent relapse by increasing understanding of the triggers of substance abuse and its consequences. CBT trains how to recognize states of mind that make a person susceptible to relapse and handle them when they arise.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET). This type of therapy aims at increasing patients’ self-motivation for positive change and recovery.

Pros and Cons of Outpatient Care

Some potential benefits and drawbacks of outpatient treatment include the following.

Potential Benefits of Outpatient Treatment

  • Reduced costs because there is no need to pay for room and board.
  • Ability to continue working, attending school, and taking care of family responsibilities during recovery.
  • Increased support from family and friends.
  • The opportunity to practice relapse prevention techniques in the real world during the treatment process.

Potential Drawbacks of Outpatient Treatment

  • Distractions. It is often better to have less contact with family and friends who might cause stress or become triggers for abuse during recovery. Ideally, the addicted person’s full focus should be on getting better, but this isn’t possible with outpatient counseling.
  • Temptations. When in an inpatient facility, patients have no option but to stay clean. There is no access to drugs or alcohol, so there is no temptation to use. If patients return home after counseling each day, they will have access to drugs or alcohol, and relapse is more likely.
  • Lack of medical supervision. When coming off certain drugs, withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable or painful, and at times they can even be life-threatening. Patients should not detox without medical supervision, and this isn’t possible at home and is better achieved through inpatient rehab.
  • Less time spent on identifying and addressing possible co-occurring disorders.

Inpatient vs Outpatient Costs Difference

Let’s look at average inpatient vs outpatient rehab cost:

Types of Care Inpatient Outpatient
Detox Inpatient detox service is included in the general rehabilitation fee. The exact cost may depend on the type of inpatient program and the type of addiction being treated. Substance addictions with precarious detox side effects also require management and 24 hour monitoring, this care also adds to the cost.

 

Detox in outpatient facilities may cost between $1000 to $1,500
Rehabilitation Cost It can cost between $6,000 for a 30 days program to $20,000 for 30 days treatment at well-known facilities.  The 60 to 90-day treatment programs may cost anywhere between $10,000 to $60,000

 

Treatment for outpatient addiction is usually cheaper because the addictions are usually mild or moderate. Outpatient treatment may cost $5000 for 3-month programs. Some renowned facilities may cost as much as $10,000 depending on frequency of visits and length of sessions.
Medications Medications such as methadone for severe drug addiction may cost $4,700 per year. The severity of addiction determines price of medications. Many rehabs don’t use medications depending on their treatment methodology. Outpatients are less likely to use medications than inpatients.

Outpatient charges are significantly more cost-effective compared to Inpatient services. A report for outpatient non-methadone treatment costs $1,000 to $5,000 total for each patient, this converts to $19 to $96 approximately per week, depending on the frequency of visits. Intensive outpatient care may cost $100 to $500 per treatment session.

How Is Rehabilitation Paid For?

Many times, insurance providers, Medicare, or Medicaid programs can help cover inpatient and outpatient care costs. For those who do not have medical coverage, payment arrangements may be an option. Availability will depend on the hospital, clinic, or organization providing the treatment.

Does My Insurance Cover Addiction Treatment? Read More About Your Health Insurance Options:

Questions to Ask Before Making the Inpatient vs Outpatient rehab Decision

There are many factors to be analyzed before settling on a rehab program and course of treatment. Experts recommend that loved ones should ask themselves these questions before choosing between inpatient and outpatient:

  • Is a current living environment stable and supportive of sobriety? That is, one is exposed to drugs or alcohol at home, and are there any family members who will continue to drink or take drugs?
  • Do they have a strong support network at home that will help to stay sober?
  • Can patients leave their job, school, or home duties for an extended period?
  • Do any co-occurring medical or mental health issues that may require treatment are present in a patient, in addition to a substance abuse problem?
  • If one chooses outpatient care, can they commute from the home to the facility several times a week?
  • Can sessions be shifted to evenings or the weekend to accommodate the patient’s work schedule?
  • Is insurance accepted, and what type?
  • How much does treatment cost for various plans, and what is the difference in cost when you choose inpatient or outpatient?
  • Is medication-assisted treatment available for the detox process?
  • For inpatients, what are the amenities present in the facility?
  • What is the distance of the rehab center from the individual’s place of residence?

Identifying the specific needs is the first step to choosing a treatment plan that will work, whatever treatment model it uses. After one has made the inpatient vs outpatient rehab choice, the next step is which facility/clinic/provider to trust in.

How to Choose the Best Inpatient or Outpatient Rehab Provider?

Inpatient vs outpatient rehab comparisons are critical decisions and require adequate information to make the best choices. Therefore, it is recommended to “do the homework” and investigate several different rehab options.

Use the Opportunity to Ask Several Important Questions. For Example:

  • Always ask about accreditation. Are all staff (and the facility itself) licensed and accredited on a state or national level?
  • Ask for a list of therapies and treatments provided. Make sure they treat both the physical and the psychological aspects of substance abuse addiction.
  • Ask what the goal of the program is. Different treatment programs have different goals; make sure the facility’s goal is the same as the patient’s.
  • Ask about inpatient vs. outpatient rehab success rates. Both inpatient and outpatient programs should supply relapse rates for patients who have completed their programs. Ask what they do to prevent relapses.
  • Do they offer ongoing support groups after the main course of therapy? These programs can greatly increase the chances of recovery.
  • Make sure one can afford the care they offer. For example, one needs to ensure that their insurance covers all or most of the treatment. Be sure to ask about copays and other costs.

Determining The Best Rehab Option For A Loved One

Once patients have weighed the options between outpatient vs. inpatient care and decided which is the best choice for a loved one, the next step is to choose where to get treatment. Again, it is important not to make a rushed decision when choosing a rehab option because the more comfortable patients are with the chosen program, the better it will work.

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Page Sources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. 2014. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/treatment-settings.
  2. Pettinati H. M., Meyers K., Jensen J. M., Kaplan F., Evans B. D. Inpatient vs outpatient treatment for substance dependence revisited. Psychiatric Quarterly. 1993; 64(2): 173-82. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8391147.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). 2018. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs.

Published on: September 28th, 2015

Updated on: October 27th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.