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Inpatient vs. outpatient addiction treatment: Which is best?


In the course of my general psychiatry practice, there are times when I am unable to manage a patient’s substance abuse issues, and I have referred patients to a higher level of care – often to an intensive outpatient program (IOP) that meets for 3 hours a day, or to an inpatient rehabilitation, usually for 28 days. I’m not always sure who can be managed in which setting, and I usually honor the patient’s wishes. If the patient is motivated, has a support system in place, and is concerned that his job will be in jeopardy if he takes time off work, then I refer to Kolmac Outpatient Recovery Centers, a local outpatient treatment center that gives patients the option of attending in the mornings or evenings and allows most people to continue working. If I think I may have only a single shot at getting a patient engaged in care, and the patient is willing to go to an inpatient setting, I refer to a residential treatment facility. It has occurred to me that this is not a very scientific way of making a treatment decision.

Dr. Dinah Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Dr. Dinah Miller

George Kolodner, MD, is the chief clinical officer of Kolmac. He has been a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s (ASAM) treatment criteria committee. When I spoke with Dr. Kolodner, he noted: “Discussions between third-party payers and treatment programs about what is the appropriate level of care for a particular individual have been adversarial. ASAM has spent many years developing the ASAM Criteria, a document that attempts to mediate these disagreements by developing objective criteria for where people ought to be treated. Because it is so comprehensive and the variables are so many, it can be difficult to use. A computerized version, called ‘Continuum,’ has been developed to make the criteria more user-friendly.”

“My 45-year experience,” Dr. Kolodner continued, “is that detoxification and rehabilitation can usually be done successfully on an outpatient basis if an appropriate facility is available and the patient has both a supportive living environment and can get to the treatment. Hospitalization and residential rehabilitation is an essential level of care when those conditions do not exist or when outpatient treatment proves to be insufficient.”

One problem with comparing the success of IOPs to inpatient programs is that these settings differ widely in which services they offer to patients.

Dr. George Kolodner

“There’s no standardization,” Dr. Kolodner said. “The services may be watered down, they may not have a medical staff or a psychiatrist, and people get sucked into inappropriate treatments. When it comes to both IOPs and inpatient facilities, there is no uniformity, and right now it’s caveat emptor.”

Marc Fishman, MD, is medical director of Maryland Treatment Centers/Mountain Manor Treatment Center, a coeditor of the ASAM Criteria, and, with Dr. Kolodner, a member of ASAM’s treatment criteria committee. He, too, talked about the absence of standardization across treatment settings.

“Bed-based and non–bed-based care exist in many flavors and subflavors. You have to remember,” Dr. Fishman said, “this is a marathon, not a sprint, and one of the most important goals of bed-based care is that it serves as a stepping stone for outpatient treatment.”

Dr. Fishman talked about a list of criteria he uses to decide whether someone can be treated as an outpatient. “First, someone has to be able to access outpatient treatment; it may not be available. Can they get back and forth? How chaotic are their lives? Is there support at home, or is it a toxic environment in which others are using? Are they likely to keep using and drop out? What is the patient’s level of motivation? If a person is very ambivalent, you may need a high-intensity motivational milieu. Are their psychiatric symptoms severe enough to require 24-hour monitoring and supervision? Most detoxification we can do on an outpatient basis, but some complex multisubstance withdrawal may need more monitoring.

“Also, we have an increasing armamentarium of medications to promote abstinence, and sometimes it makes sense to start them in higher-level treatment settings; for example long-acting injectable naltrexone (Vivitrol) needs a 10-day postdetox opioid-free washout before it can be started.”

Dr. Marc Fishman

Dr. Fishman was careful to note that imminent danger is usually not a reason to use an inpatient rehab setting. “When you’re talking about safety issues, then people usually need a hospital. Most rehabs are not equipped to deal with dangerous patients.”

In choosing from the different treatment options, the first question should be to ask which forms of treatment are available with high-quality care. Can the patient access an outpatient center, will he be able to get to treatment, and will he be able to remain sober between visits? Will he be offered a full range of treatment options in that setting? Can substance withdrawal be managed safely? If the patient fails at outpatient care, will he be willing to consider inpatient treatment as a next step? What is the risk associated with relapse in a setting that allows for access to substances between sessions? Is the patient someone who is at high risk for a fatal overdose, or at high risk for endangering others, for example, someone who has been revived from overdoses or has driven while inebriated? Would this patient benefit from more intensive psychotherapeutic care? And the question that always haunts me: If there is a bad outcome, will I regret that I did not recommend more?”

Often, I’m left with the idea that it would be nice if we were all given crystal balls at the end of training. In hindsight, if a patient does well, the treatment that was offered was enough, and perhaps even too much in terms of cost. If a patient does not do well, we may be left to ask if he would have been better off if we had recommended a higher level of care, assuming that care could be financed and accessed, and that the patient complied with the treatment recommendations. As it stands now, some people recover from addictions without our help, while others access every form of treatment in all the assorted flavors and still die from their addictions.

Both experts agree that treatment is often effective, and the news here is good. But treatment only works if a patient actually follows through on it, so the best treatment is often the one the patient is willing to accept.

Dr. Miller is the coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

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