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The Role of the Intensive Outpatient Program in Treating Eating Disorders

By Margherita Mascolo, MD, CED-S| 3 Min Read | April 11, 2024

The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) plays a critical role when treating an eating disorder. It serves as both a step down from higher levels of care and as a step up from outpatient treatment. 

In IOP at Inner Haven Wellness, patients benefit from individual sessions with their therapist and dietitian, participate in group therapy, and receive meal support. These various treatment modalities can help effectively stabilize eating disorder behaviors, which often allow patients to continue to work with their outpatient team and continue to engage in meaningful activities, ranging from work, school, and family events.

The Benefit Of IOP For Medical Professionals

IOP is particularly helpful for medical professionals who are treating patients with an eating disorder.   

Patients with an eating disorder can experience a wide array of medical complications due to certain eating-disordered behaviors.  These complications might include a low heart rate due to low body weight, electrolyte abnormalities from purging behaviors, severe constipation from laxative abuse, and obstructive sleep apnea from higher body weight.  Trained physicians working with these patients are often the first clinicians to raise suspicions about maladaptive behaviors, through thorough histories, physical exams, and lab work. 

As with most medical conditions, early diagnosis and expert treatment can prevent patients from developing irreversible, permanent, and often catastrophic medical complications from an eating disorder. 

For example, electrolyte abnormalities from purging behaviors can range from mild deficiencies straightforwardly treated during an outpatient appointment to cardiac arrhythmias and seizures that require emergent care and hospitalization in intensive care units. 

What Happens After An Eating Disorder Is Diagnosed?

Following the diagnosis of a medical complication, treating an eating disorder can often require a very close follow up, including electrolyte replacement and recheck, EKG, medication titration to alleviate gastroparesis symptoms, and close monitoring for refeeding syndrome.   

Intensive Outpatient Programming provides structure, accountability, and support for patients treating and suffering from medical complications. The treatment team can assist in the execution of the physician’s plan—the team helps patients adhere to their medication regimens, get necessary blood work, or schedule a follow up visit.  

How IOP is Beneficial For Treating An Eating Disorder

Regular assessment for the patient by clinicians provides reassurance for the physician, knowing that someone will sound the proverbial alarm if their patient doesn’t seem well. 

Patients who are being treated for an eating disorder can deteriorate quickly, which necessitates visits to the emergency room. These patients are notoriously mismanaged in an emergency setting—patients will not always disclose all behaviors and physicians will not always recognize an eating disorder and its associated behaviors.  

This lack of cohesion can leave a patient dissatisfied, distrustful of the medical system, and resistant to treatment. When patients transition to IOP, the IOP treatment team knows what behaviors to look for, recognizes them early, and aggressively treats them before emergency care is necessary. 

The Importance of IOP Treatment

In general, an early step up to IOP can not only prevent the need for emergency medical treatment but can also keep patients from progressing to treating an eating disorder in a residential or inpatient environment.  

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or would like more information about our IOP program for eating disorders, don’t hesitate to reach out to Inner Haven Wellness for professional help and guidance.   

About The Author

Eating Disorder Doctor Near Madison, WI - Margherita Mascolo