Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment

Making the decision on whether you or a loved one needs outpatient or inpatient treatment should be one that is done with care. There are an extensive number of variables to first consider before choosing an option. Each individual in need of treatment has a unique situation and no one option is right for all. Outpatient programs work for some but not all. If an individual has a severe addiction or issues of relapse, inpatient might actually be the better option. Outpatient usually works best for those in aftercare but in some cases it can be appropriate as the primary treatment. Find out what will work best for you and your family’s situation.

Benefits & Drawbacks of Inpatient Care



An inpatient program provides the addicted person with a wall of security, blocking negative influences out and surrounding the person with a culture of sobriety.

  • Each day, all day long, the person isn’t tapped by little stressors that could lead to a relapse.
  • Drug-using friends can’t come into the facility while under the influence.
  • No drugs can cross the threshold and lead to a relapse.
In a study in BMJ, researchers found that 81 percent of addicts in inpatient facilities managed to complete the drug withdrawal process, while only 17 percent of people in outpatient treatment programs did the same.

It’s a safe and secure environment. Since the environment is so protected and so secure, some studies suggest that people are more likely to stay clean.

It’s possible that the around-the-clock access to therapy, paired with a significantly reduced ability to access drugs, can keep some people moving forward toward long-term success.



In an inpatient program, people have to leave their lives behind for a time so they can focus on healing. This means making important decisions on if it’s possible to temporarily give up control of the various day-to-day responsibilities on might have.

Taking a step back from daily life, including:

  • Children
  • Significant others
  • Aging parents
  • Pets
  • Work
  • School
A study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that concerns about childcare, along with the time commitment involved, kept some addicted people away from treatment programs of any sort. They just didn’t see how they could accommodate treatment, when the life disruption involved was so very significant. For people like this, outpatient care might be a better option.

People with addictions often aren’t thinking clearly, and all of the logistics surrounding involvement in inpatient care can be overwhelming. Sometimes, this keeps people out of treatment programs altogether.

More on Inpatient Care Options

Benefits & Drawbacks of Outpatient Care



In an outpatient program, people can continue to manage the day-to-day details of their lives, even while they access very real treatment programs for their addictions. They might be able to schedule treatment appointments around their other obligations, allowing them to tend to small children or hold down a job, all while they are getting better, bit by bit. Sometimes, maintaining ties like this reminds people of why they want to improve in the first place, and this could be the spur that keeps people involved in their care, actively looking for solutions that can keep them away from drugs in the future.

Outpatient care can be just as rigorous as inpatient care, and clients might be expected to spend hours and hours each week in therapy sessions, educational classes and support group meetings.

Researchers from a study in The Lancet found that those who were given alcohol treatment in hospitals spent eight to nine weeks in care, while those who got help on an outpatient program spent only seven weeks in intensive treatment. At the end of the study period, there was no “significant difference” between the two groups of people, suggesting that both programs had the capacity to help, even though one was much shorter.

Cost might also make an outpatient care program an attractive option. Since people are supplying their own living spaces and their own food, the cost of daily care is much reduced, and people can continue to work and earn money when they participate in programs like this. As a result, the final bill for treatment in an outpatient program might seem much smaller than the total cost of inpatient care.


People in outpatient care can face significant temptation to use and abuse drugs. They might feel triggers to use each time they:

  • Walk by places in which they used to use drugs
  • See people who once sold them drugs
  • Watch people using drugs, including characters on television
  • Handle tools they once used to administer drugs

holistic outpatient treatmentThese sorts of triggers are often removed from the inpatient environment, but they might surround someone in outpatient care almost every single moment of the day. It can be hard to resist the urge to use, when the opportunity to do so seems to surround the person almost all of the time.


Making a Decision

People looking for specific studies that prove the value of one type of treatment over another are bound to be disappointed. As an article in Contemporary Family Therapy puts it, studies on efficacy are often “uncontrolled,” meaning that two groups of people getting two different types of treatment are compared to one another, with no untreated people serving as controls. Studies that do use controls don’t see a clear benefit, according to this article, but it could also be argued that controls of any sort just aren’t possible. Unless the same person has two different types of treatment under the same circumstances and then has no treatment at all, solid comparisons just aren’t possible. Studies like this might also be more than a little unethical.

In the end, the family must weigh all the options available and then think about what might be the right kind of venue and treatment option to assist the person they love with a very specific problem. Counselors might be able to provide guidance and help families to choose the right setting, but they will need to make the final call and feel confident about the choice they’ve made. That’s just a reality.

All Calls Are Confidential

If you’d like help in making this important choice, please call us. Foundations Recovery Network programs utilize science-based protocols to assist with addiction issues, and we can help you to parse out the difference between the two settings of care and make a choice that’s right for your family. Please call us to find out more.