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Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment For Eating Disorders

By Margherita Mascolo, MD, CED-S| 10 Min Read | May 10, 2024

Table of Contents

  • Inpatient Treatment
    • What Are the Benefits of Inpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders?
  • Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders
    • What Are the Benefits of Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders?
  • Comparing Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders
    • Intensity of Care
    • Environment and Lifestyle Considerations
    • Financial Considerations
    • Transition and Continuity of Care
    • Collaboration with Existing Support Systems
  • Making the Right Choice
  • Inner Haven Wellness is Here to Help

Eating disorders are complicated and multifaceted illnesses that require compassionate and individualized care. Choosing the right treatment approach is a vital step toward healing. Two primary paths are often considered: inpatient vs. outpatient treatment. Both have unique features and benefits, and understanding them can help individuals and their families make an informed decision that aligns with the individual’s specific needs and goals.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment for eating disorders offers a nurturing and structured environment where individuals can focus entirely on recovery. This approach is typically suitable for those who require intensive care, constant monitoring, and a high level of support, and thus individuals remain at the facility for the duration of treatment. 

Inpatient treatment generally has three levels of care: medical stabilization, inpatient, and residential. 

Medical Stabilization

The most critical level of care that serves patients who are most acutely ill with predominantly medical complications is the inpatient medical stabilization level of care.  This care is delivered in a hospital setting by a multidisciplinary team including medical physicians, nurses, therapists, dietitians and oftentimes psychiatrists. 

Patients generally step down from this level of care to eating disorder inpatient or residential treatment. 

Inpatient

In an inpatient setting, patients in a specialized facility receive round-the-clock care from a multidisciplinary team of professionals. The treatment plan is tailored to the individual’s unique needs and often includes therapy, nutritional counseling, medical monitoring, and group support. 

Most inpatient facilities are not in an hospital environment, however patients are still assessed on a daily basis from a physician.  This level of care is often recommended for individuals who are medically unstable or those who have not responded to less intensive treatment options. The goal is to create a safe and nurturing space where healing can begin, and the roots of the disorder can be addressed with empathy and understanding. 

Patients generally step down to the residential level of care to continue their treatment journey.

Residential

The residential level of care serves patients with high acuity that do not require daily medical assessments; however there is available medical care round-the-clock delivered by onsite nurses.  They are followed by a multidisciplinary team of medical physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, therapists, and dietitians.  They participate in group sessions as well as individual sessions. 

Similar to inpatient treatment for eating disorders, there is a safe and nurturing space at residential treatment where patients can be supported in their recovery journey with empathy and compassion.  

What Are the Benefits of Inpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders?

Inpatient treatment offers a comprehensive and supportive environment that can be incredibly beneficial for those in need of intensive care. Patients receive constant attention and care from a team of professionals, ensuring that physical and emotional needs are met. A well-organized daily routine in a structured environment helps patients focus on recovery without the distractions and triggers of everyday life. 

While in inpatient care, individuals have the opportunity to focus solely on their recovery, and while they may be separated from their home environment, this separation can offer a chance for healing and growth. 

Medical professionals are on hand to monitor and address physical health concerns, providing peace of mind for patients and their families.

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Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders

Outpatient treatment for eating disorders provides a flexible and personalized approach to recovery, allowing individuals to receive care while continuing to participate in their daily lives. This treatment is often suitable for those who have a strong support system at home and are medically stable. Patients attend regular therapy sessions, group meetings, nutritional counseling, and return home at the end of the day. The treatment plan is crafted with care and understanding, focusing on individual needs and goals. This level of care is often recommended for those transitioning from inpatient treatment or those who require a higher level of support than traditional outpatient therapy but do not need round-the-clock care.

There are three outpatient levels of care. 

Partial Hospitalization (PHP)

The highest acuity, partial hospitalization program (PHP), serves patients 5-7 days per week for an average of 6-8 hours per day.  The multidisciplinary team at PHP includes nursing visits and psychiatric care, in addition to therapy, dietary, and group sessions. 

Patients routinely step down from PHP to intensive outpatient programming (IOP)

IOP care is also delivered by a multidisciplinary team, but there are no nurse visits and the patients are followed by their outpatient psychiatrist.  Most IOP programs are from 3-5 days per week for approximately 10 hours of treatment per week.  The lowest level of care is traditional outpatient care where patients may be followed by a multidisciplinary team usually assembled by the patient, and visits may not be on a weekly basis (depending on the acuity of the patient).  

As patients move down the levels of care the acuity decreases and they gain more independence.

What Are the Benefits of Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders?

Outpatient treatment offers flexibility that can be highly appealing to many individuals. The ability to continue with daily life, work, or school while receiving treatment allows for more seamless integration of recovery into everyday living. It also allows the treatment team to better understand the individual’s home life and address in real time any stressors caused by the real world.

This approach often fosters a sense of autonomy and control, empowering individuals to take charge of their healing journey. Outpatient treatment encourages individuals to actively integrate recovery into their daily lives and works best for people with a strong personal commitment to adhere to the treatment plan. The flexibility means that distractions or triggers are more likely to pop up, which gives individuals the opportunity to work with their team to address recovery challenges of daily life. 

Comparing Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders

Choosing between inpatient and outpatient treatment is a deeply personal and significant decision that requires careful consideration, understanding, and professional guidance. Both paths offer unique benefits and potential challenges, and understanding these in detail can help individuals and their families make the best choice for their specific situation.

Intensity of Care

Inpatient treatment is known for its intensive support and structure. It’s often recommended for individuals who require constant monitoring, especially if there are medical concerns or if previous treatment attempts have been unsuccessful. The round-the-clock care and structured environment provide a safe space for healing and recovery.

On the other hand, outpatient treatment for eating disorders offers a more flexible approach, allowing individuals to receive care while maintaining their daily routines. This option might be more suitable for those with a strong home support system, who are medically stable, and who are committed to their recovery journey.

Environment and Lifestyle Considerations

The environment in inpatient treatment is highly controlled and free from the distractions and triggers of everyday life. This can be incredibly beneficial for those who need to focus solely on recovery. 

Outpatient treatment allows individuals to stay connected to their community, family, and work or school. This connection can be empowering and help integrate recovery into daily living. It also requires a higher level of personal commitment and awareness to avoid potential triggers.

Financial Considerations

Inpatient treatment, with its intensive care and residential setting, can be more costly, as individuals are unable to work at this level of care. Insurance coverage, length of stay, and the specific facility can all impact the overall cost. Considering these factors and understanding what is included in the treatment package is essential.

Outpatient treatment is often more affordable, as it doesn’t include residential costs. The flexibility in scheduling and the ability to continue working or attending school might also make this option more financially accessible for some individuals.

Transition and Continuity of Care

Inpatient treatment often serves as a starting point for those who need intensive care, and the transition to outpatient treatment can be a natural progression in the recovery journey. This transition allows for a gradual reduction in the intensity of care while maintaining support and structure.

Outpatient treatment can also serve as a standalone option or a step-down from a more intensive program. It offers continuity of care tailored to the individual’s evolving needs and progress.

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Collaboration with Existing Support Systems

Inpatient treatment provides a comprehensive, multidisciplinary team that works closely together. Family involvement is limited due to the intensive nature of the program.

Outpatient treatment often allows for more collaboration with existing support systems, including family, friends, and local healthcare providers. This collaboration can create a cohesive and personalized support network.

Making the Right Choice

The decision between inpatient vs outpatient treatment for eating disorders is multifaceted and must be made with a thorough understanding of the individual’s unique needs, preferences, and situation. Factors such as the severity of the disorder, personal and lifestyle considerations, financial aspects, and the desired level of support and structure should all be carefully weighed.

Consulting with healthcare professionals, considering the insights and feelings of the individual in need of care, and taking the time to understand the distinct offerings of both inpatient and outpatient paths can lead to the decision that best supports lasting recovery and well-being.

If you’re unsure whether you or a loved one is suffering with an eating disorder, take our quiz and connect with us.

Inner Haven Wellness Is Here to Help

Eating disorder prevention is a collaborative effort that raises awareness, promotes healthy attitudes toward food and body image, and provides education about nutrition and body function. Recognizing the indications of eating disorders and seeking professional help early can significantly improve the chances of recovery.

At Inner Haven, we are committed to providing the support and guidance needed to manage the complexities of eating disorders. Our team of dedicated professionals is here to help you understand your treatment options and to provide a safe and nurturing environment for recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder or if you have concerns about your relationship with food or body image, we encourage you to reach out to us. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s never too early or too late to seek treatment. Your journey toward recovery can start today.

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Key Takeaways

  • Personalized Approach: Both inpatient and outpatient treatments for eating disorders offer unique benefits, and the choice should align with individual needs and goals.
  • Inpatient Treatment: Provides intensive, round-the-clock care in a structured environment, suitable for those needing higher support.
  • Outpatient Treatment: Offers flexibility and allows for integration with daily life, suitable for those with strong home support and commitment to recovery.
  • Comparison Factors: Considerations such as intensity of care, environment, financial aspects, transition, and collaboration with support systems are vital in making the right choice.
  • Professional Guidance: Consulting with healthcare professionals and understanding the offerings of both paths can lead to a decision that best supports lasting recovery.
  • Inner Haven’s Commitment: Inner Haven provides support, guidance, and a nurturing environment for managing the complexities of eating disorders.

About The Author

Eating Disorder Doctor Near Madison, WI - Margherita Mascolo