Skip to content

Family-Owned, Patient-Focused: The Renfrew Center Difference


Intensive Outpatient or Regular Outpatient: How Do They Compare?

Written by: Erin Birely, LCPC
Alumni Services Coordinator, The Renfrew Center

There are so many different levels of eating disorder care that you may find yourself wondering, what do all these letters stand for and what do the programs even do? Well, my hope today is to clear up some of the mystery of at least one of those levels of care, Intensive Outpatient Program or IOP. Given the name intensive outpatient program you might be thinking, “Okay, so just a couple sessions a week with my outpatient therapist, right?” But there’s a lot more to it than that!

What is IOP?

Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) are designed and lead by a treatment team and have a structured program to provide members with support. The Renfrew Center’s IOP meets three times per week. The days and times are meant to accommodate work and school schedules so clients can gain support without needing to take time away from school, work, or home responsibilities.

What Does an IOP Program Include?

An IOP program typically includes group therapy treatment focusing on emotional awareness, tolerance, and regulation skills. In addition to the groups for skill development, Renfrew’s IOP also provides at least one support meal for clients on the days they attend programming. This support around meals can be crucial for someone just getting started with a meal plan as well as for those who are transitioning from a Day Treatment Program.

Many patients who step down to lower levels of care benefit from the extra support when challenging themselves around meals. In collaboration with a client’s outpatient therapist and psychiatrist, our IOP includes an interdisciplinary team, consisting of a dietitian, group therapists, a case manager and psychiatric consultations, as needed. In addition to these services, so much healing can occur within the supportive community of other patients working towards recovery.

How is IOP Different Than Outpatient?

Outpatient therapy is the type of therapy we are all most familiar with. You meet with a therapist weekly or maybe every other week. You might have a psychiatrist you see every few weeks for medication management and you may even have other members on your team like a dietitian or family or couple’s therapist.

The main difference between IOP and outpatient treatment is the amount of support the two can ethically and logistically provide to a client.

When the weekly or twice weekly sessions with our team members are not enough support to help us make the progress we’re hoping for, it is then that we look towards a higher level of care like an IOP program. The increased frequency of professional support, the guidance around meals, the connection with a supportive community we receive in an IOP program can support us in getting past the roadblocks we found immovable in outpatient treatment.

What Can I Expect from In-Person IOP?

If you’ve been recommended to start IOP you might be wondering what all it will entail. IOP will be based off of the treatment center and treatment approach and it is important to find the setting that makes the most sense for you and your goals in treatment. At The Renfrew Center, you will participate in groups focused on learning and applying skills from The Renfrew Center’s evidenced-based Unified Treatment Model. These skills help us to better understand our emotional experiences, how they impact us, and our responses to them.

You will also participate in groups designed to help you express your emotions and thoughts in different ways, like with movement or art in an expressive therapy group. There is also a heavy emphasis on nutrition education through groups and a dietitian that you will meet with to better understand and work towards your personal goals. Your dietitian will work with you to challenge food rules and support you in increasing the variety of foods you eat. They will also work with your existing dietitian (or get you set up with one) so you can continue making progress when finished with the program.

You will continue meeting with your outpatient therapist so you have that consistent support in addition to a case manager at Renfrew who will help you continue working towards your goals and keep your therapist updated on your progress. The program lasts about 8-10 weeks depending on your individualized goals. Once the program is completed you are able to continue to your work with your outpatient team seamlessly as they have been kept up to date on progress throughout.

Virtual IOP

If in-person treatment cannot be arranged, some sites offer virtual intensive outpatient therapy supported by clinical staff trained in telehealth best practices. Virtual programs are HIPAA-compliant and provide the same skills, structure and support found in in-person programs.

Who Would Benefit from IOP?

An intensive outpatient program is not the right fit for everyone. If you feel like you aren’t making the progress you hoped for in outpatient therapy, it could be something to bring up to your therapist.

An IOP can be very beneficial for someone who is willing to make the changes, but finds they are struggling to implement their plans on their own or wanting more accountability than weekly sessions. IOP can also benefit someone who is feeling a bit alone on their journey and would like a sense of acceptance and community that is achieved through group therapy.

In order to qualify for an IOP you will need to complete an assessment with the treatment center to make sure it is the appropriate level of support based off of your current symptoms. While IOP might not be the right fit for everyone, it is important to explore with your outpatient therapist what supports could be of benefit to you and how you can get the most out of treatment.


An intensive outpatient program can provide the additional support and structure that might be missing from an outpatient experience. Recovery isn’t linear, and it’s okay to want or need extra support at certain times on your journey. It’s important that the level of care you choose meets your unique needs and individualizes treatment to meet your goals. As with any eating disorder program, the goal is to create a therapeutic community where relationships are developed based on mutual sharing and support. Recovery is a gradual process that takes time and patience, and getting the support you deserve can help you progress in many ways.

Back To Library