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Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.)

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Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment.

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Chapter 2. Principles of Intensive Outpatient Treatment

This chapter presents 14 principles that integrate the findings of addictions research with the opinion of the consensus panel. By synthesizing research and practice, the consensus panel will assist clinicians in applying these principles to the clinical decisions they face daily. The 14 principles are expressed throughout this TIP in the form of specific recommendations. They are summarized here to provide a concise overview of effective intensive outpatient treatment (IOT) principles.

The Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999) offers a valuable starting point for the principles that are described in this chapter. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) principles pertain to the full spectrum of addiction treatment modalities, not only to IOT. The consensus panel chose to accentuate the principles that are critical to effective IOT.

The 14 principles described in this chapter are

  • 1. Make treatment readily available.
  • 2. Ease entry.
  • 3. Build on existing motivation.
  • 4. Enhance therapeutic alliance.
  • 5. Make retention a priority.
  • 6. Assess and address individual treatment needs.
  • 7. Provide ongoing care.
  • 8. Monitor abstinence.
  • 9. Use mutual-help and other community-based supports.
  • 10. Use medications if indicated.
  • 11. Educate about substance abuse, recovery, and relapse.
  • 12. Engage families, employers, and significant others.
  • 13. Incorporate evidence-based approaches.
  • 14. Improve program administration.

Principle 1: Make Treatment Readily Available

Accommodate a Wide Spectrum of Clients Who Are Substance Dependent

Clinical research and practice have established that IOT is an effective and viable way for individuals with a range of substance use disorders to begin their recovery. In the 1980s, it commonly was believed that only clients who were relatively high functioning, employed, and free of significant co-occurring psychiatric disorders could benefit from IOT and that IOT was not effective with clients who were compromised by significant psychosocial stressors such as homelessness or co-occurring disorders. Today substantial research and clinical experience indicate that IOT can be effective for clients with a range of biopsychosocial problems, particularly when appropriate psychiatric, medical, case management, housing, and other support services are provided.

Comparing Inpatient Treatment With Intensive Outpatient Treatment
Several studies comparing intensive outpatient treatment with residential treatment have found no significant differences in outcomes (Guydish et al. 1998, 1999; Schneider et al. 1996). Finney and colleagues (1996), however, in a review of 14 studies, found that the available evidence tended to favor inpatient slightly over outpatient treatment. The consensus panel has concluded that clients benefit from both levels of care and that comparing inpatient with outpatient treatment is potentially counterproductive because the important question is not which level of care is better but, rather, which level of care is more appropriate at a given time for each client. Matching clients with enhanced services also improves client outcomes. McLellan and colleagues (1998) found that compared with control subjects, clients with access to case managers who coordinated medical, housing, parenting, and employment services had less substance use, fewer physical and mental health problems, and better social function after 6 months. It is in the best interest of clients to have a broad continuum of treatment options available. Some clients entering IOT may be able to engage in treatment immediately, whereas others may need referral to a long-term residential program or a therapeutic community. Some clients can be detoxified successfully in an ambulatory setting, whereas others need residential services to complete detoxification successfully.

IOT programs have adjusted successfully to the challenges of working with many special population groups that include

IOT programs have modified their treatment models to be responsive to the needs of adolescents (Jainchill 2000) and women with children (Nardi 1998; Volpicelli et al. 2000). In addition, panel members have described the benefits of IOT programs with culturally specific components for Native American and Spanish-speaking clients and IOT services for clients at various stages of treatment readiness. The unique needs of specific client populations often can be met in IOT by adding services and creating linkages with other service providers.

Principle 2: Ease Entry

Make Access to Treatment Straightforward and Welcoming

IOT programs need to examine policies and procedures to remove unnecessary hurdles in the admission process. From the moment a client or family member first contacts the program, efforts should be made to communicate that IOT exists to serve the client. Delays in the admission process contribute significantly to premature dropout from treatment (Festinger et al. 2002). IOT programs should strive to make the initial appointment available on demand.

Programs should address the following:

  • Can the admission process be streamlined without hurting revenues?
  • Are the program's hours convenient for clients?
  • How can the program facilitate transportation for clients?
  • How can the program accommodate clients with childcare responsibilities?
  • Is the program individualizing treatment for each client?

The initial encounter with the IOT program should help the client feel like a welcomed participant who is responsible for his or her recovery. IOT programs need to develop a strong customer-focused orientation, making entry into treatment a positive and therapeutic experience.

Principle 3: Build on Existing Motivation

Employ Strategies That Enhance the Client's Motivation

One of the oldest, yet still surviving, misconceptions in the substance abuse treatment field is the notion that people have to “hit bottom” before they can be helped. Studies indicate that individuals who enter treatment for “the wrong reasons” (e.g., complying with external pressures) have outcomes that are comparable with outcomes of those who come into treatment for the “right reasons” (e.g., personal commitment to recovery) (Lawental et al. 1996).

Internal or external pressures drive people to enter treatment. Reasons include negative consequences related to substance use such as an arrest for driving under the influence, pressure from family or friends, fear that substance use is out of control, despair, job insecurity, or a trauma. An IOT program should accept that a client's presence in its office indicates some desire for treatment services.

Regardless of how well or poorly motivated clients appear at treatment entry, their motivation is likely to waver repeatedly over time. Both IOT programs and clients benefit when counselors keep clients mindful of what led them to treatment. Counselors should try to understand what clients care about and connect client concerns with addressing substance use. For example, if a client talks frequently about her daughter, the counselor might ask the client to consider how substance use affects her relationship with the child.

Because of the central importance of motivation in substance abuse treatment, strategies to enhance and maintain client motivation have been a priority in substance abuse research. Two well-researched approaches offer insights into and strategies for maximizing client motivation:

  • Contingency management and related behavioral interventions use incentives to increase client retention in treatment and abstinence. Contingency management in addiction treatment has been studied for more than 30 years, but recent studies have focused on how its principles can be applied in community-based settings (Budney and Higgins 1998; Higgins and Silverman 1999; Katz et al. 2001; Kirby et al. 1999a ; Petry 2000). These behavioral intervention studies show that motivation is negotiable and can be increased when incentives are applied strategically and systematically. IOT programs are encouraged to find creative ways to use incentives to increase treatment adherence and enhance outcomes.
  • Motivational enhancement and interviewing are techniques whereby the counselor responds to client denial and resistance by proposing thoughtful and detailed strategies that are designed to increase client readiness to change (CSAT 1999c ;Miller and Rollnick 2002; Prochaska and DiClemente 1984). The approach is based on the theory that clients being treated for substance use disorders go through five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, action, relapse, and maintenance. Client resistance to treatment indicates that the counselor may be attempting to move the client to the next stage too quickly.

Principle 4: Enhance Therapeutic Alliance

Implement Strategies That Build Trust Between Counselor and Client

In treating mental and substance use disorders, research repeatedly has found one factor to be particularly important in influencing positive outcomes: therapeutic alliance (Martin et al. 2000). In fact, therapeutic alliance is one of the few aspects of treatment that consistently has been linked with increased retention in treatment and improvement in a variety of treatment outcomes. The achievement and maintenance of therapeutic alliance are high priorities in treatment.

Therapeutic alliance has four components (Gaston 1991):

  • The client's capacity to work on his or her problem
  • The client's emotional bond with the therapist
  • The therapist's empathic understanding of the client
  • The agreement between client and therapist on the goals and tasks of treatment

Therapeutic alliance tends to be enhanced when clinicians are active listeners, empathic, and nonjudgmental and approach treatment as an active collaboration (Mercer and Woody 1999).

Clinical supervisors should consider the counselors' ability to establish and maintain a therapeutic alliance when hiring and evaluating staff. Staff training and supervision should emphasize consistently that therapeutic alliance is an important element of any clinical interaction. Performance monitoring and quality improvement activities can capture and measure data on therapeutic alliance, so staff members can improve their skills at fostering this important treatment element (see CSAT 2006f ).

Principle 5: Make Retention a Priority

Place a Premium on Retaining Clients

Early termination of treatment harms the client and staff morale. When clients drop out of treatment prematurely, they are at increased risk of relapse. Completing a prescribed treatment episode is associated with better outcomes, regardless of the length of the treatment (Gottheil et al. 1998).

Given the large number of clients who drop out in the first few weeks of treatment, programs should use strategies and approaches that ensure that clients will complete treatment, such as conducting preadmission interviews (Martino et al. 2000), delivering phone reminders and mailed reminders, using phone orientations, and decreasing the initial call-to-appointment delay (Stasiewicz and Stalker 1999).

A major strength of IOT is that clients have the opportunity to cope with their illness and make changes in their behavior while living at home. Individual differences in how quickly clients adopt new behaviors call for clinical sophistication and flexibility on the part of counselors and the program as a whole. It can be frustrating when clients do not accept immediately the clinical approach that the IOT program is using. Clients can be frustrated when they are forced into making major lifestyle changes that do not yet make sense to them. Under such circumstances, clients may drop out. Programs need counseling approaches that help clients move toward higher levels of healthy functioning.

Principle 6: Assess and Address Individual Treatment Needs

Match Treatment Services to Clients' Needs

At intake, treatment providers gather preliminary information from clients; then, shortly after admission, programs typically complete a comprehensive biopsychosocial assessment. Many programs administer standardized assessments, such as the Addiction Severity Index (McLellan et al. 1992a , 1992b ) as well as other specific and multidomain assessments. After collecting detailed information about clients' histories and future goals, programs need to use this information to tailor treatment services to clients.

When clients have unmet psychiatric, medical, legal, housing, social, family, or other personal needs, their ability to focus on recovery can be compromised. When programs match the individual treatment needs of clients to treatment services that address those needs, outcomes improve (Hser et al. 1999; McCaul et al. 2001; McLellan et al. 1998, 1999). NIDA's Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment notes that “matching treatment settings, interventions, and services to each individual's particular problems and needs is critical to his or her ultimate success in returning to productive functioning in the family, workplace, and society” (National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999, p. 3). IOT programs need to find increasingly efficient strategies for assessing treatment needs and implementing individualized care plans.

Principle 7: Provide Ongoing Care

Employ a Chronic Care Model, Adjusting Intensity According to Clients' Needs

A substance use disorder is a complex biopsychosocial illness that is not amenable to a quick fix. In addition to their substance use disorders, clients often have significant psychiatric disorders, criminal involvement, histories of physical and sexual trauma, serious medical illnesses, or profound economic challenges or are homeless. IOT programs contribute to society when they successfully assist clients in improving their ability to function in the community, in the workplace, and in their families. The successful initiation and maintenance of this transformation require sustained and conscientious efforts by the client, his or her support system, and a clinical team.

Substance abuse is a chronic illness similar in many respects to other chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension (McLellan et al. 2000). During the early phase of treatment, intensive interventions may be required, including hospitalization. As the client's condition changes, the intensity of treatment gradually can be increased or decreased depending on the client's condition. Eventually client care may be reduced to periodic checkups that evaluate the client's status and adjust treatment accordingly. A substance use disorder often is treated as if it were an acute illness that responds to a brief, acute course of treatment. Frequently, a 6-week IOT experience is not followed by a stepped-down phase of counseling sessions. For many clients, this abrupt shift from intensive treatment to discharge is destabilizing. Because substance abuse is a chronic condition and relapse is always a possibility, IOT programs are encouraged to examine how they can provide smoother stepdown processes and continuing care services that are responsive to the chronic nature of substance use disorders.

Following their successful completion of an intensive phase of treatment, clients should be evaluated for their readiness to be transferred to less intensive levels of care. Gradually, clients should be transitioned from several therapeutic contacts per week to weekly contact to semimonthly contact and so on. The concept of graduation should be reframed to convey clearly—as it is in colleges and universities—not an ending but a commencement or a new beginning.

Principle 8: Monitor Abstinence

Recognize the Progress That Clients Make in Achieving and Maintaining Abstinence

Programs might consider requiring 30 days of abstinence before transitioning clients to a less intense level of care because extended abstinence is associated with positive long-term outcomes (McKay et al. 1999). Although it is true that not all clients readily can achieve abstinence without relapsing a few times, it also is true that outcomes are best for those clients who have stopped using drugs and have submitted a drug-free urine sample before entering treatment (Ehrman et al. 2001). To monitor abstinence, IOT programs should use urine drug screens, Breathalyzer™ tests, or other laboratory tests to confirm self-reported abstinence. Urine drug screens can be an effective adjunct in treatment and can contribute to improved treatment outcomes (National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999). Although cost considerations may limit the frequency of urine drug screens and Breathalyzer tests, the consensus panel strongly encourages the use of these objective measures of abstinence.

Principle 9: Use Mutual-Help and Other Community-Based Supports

Assist Clients in Successfully Integrating Into Mutual-Help and Other Community-Based Support Groups

Participation in mutual-help programs, such as 12-Step programs and treatment programs that facilitate 12-Step membership, is associated with better outcomes than participation in types of treatment that do not facilitate 12-Step membership (Humphreys et al. 1997; Moos et al. 1999; Project MATCH Research Group 1997; Vaillant 1983; see McCrady and Miller 1993, for a review of the Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] research literature). Clients who become involved in 12-Step programs after they step down from IOT tend to do significantly better than those who do not participate in such programs (Moos et al. 1999). IOT programs should facilitate clients' becoming integrated successfully into healthy, community-based mutual-help groups, such as AA (, and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) ( during treatment. IOT programs should assist clients directly in locating a home group and a sponsor and in becoming oriented to the culture of 12-Step programs.

It is not sufficient simply to refer clients to AA or other 12-Step groups. Just as a physician works with patients to find the right medication and dosage, counselors need to help clients identify the right type of meeting and frequency of attendance (Forman 2002). Just as patients often have unwanted side effects from medications, particularly when they first start taking them, clients who begin attending 12-Step and other mutual-help groups often experience some minor side effects. IOT programs can help clients minimize the negative side effects by providing orientation and support as clients adjust to this important treatment element. (There are many 12-Step meetings for the family, such as Al-Anon/Alateen [] and Nar-Anon [], as well as groups for compulsive behaviors such as sex, gambling, spending, and eating.)

Many individuals who are substance dependent find abstinence through participation in faith-based organizations, and many religious groups offer support for individuals who are seeking recovery. Other individuals have benefited from support groups such as Rational Recovery (, Smart Recovery (, or Women for Sobriety ( that offer an alternative to 12-Step meetings. Giving clients a choice of support groups is empowering because it enables them to make informed decisions.

Principle 10: Use Medications if Indicated

Use Appropriate Medications To Manage Co-Occurring Substance Use and Psychiatric Disorders

A substantial percentage of clients with substance use disorders also have co-occurring psychiatric conditions (Kessler et al. 1996; Marlowe et al. 1995). Psychiatric medications are critically important in the treatment of these co-occurring conditions (Carroll 1996a ; Drake et al. 1998b ; Minkoff 1997). Ideally, IOTs should provide psychiatric evaluation and medication management on site. If funding limitations make it impossible to offer this care on site, then efficient and functioning links with mental health providers need to be maintained.

Resistance to the use of psychiatric medications by substance abuse treatment clinicians is gradually being replaced by an appreciation for the valuable role these medications can play when used appropriately. Likewise, both NA and AA historically had been averse to medications of any kind, but both have published statements supporting the appropriate use of medications (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services 1991; Narcotics Anonymous 1998).

A number of pharmacotherapies have been shown to be effective adjuncts to the treatment of substance abuse. Naltrexone has been effective with some people who are alcohol dependent (Guardia et al. 2002). However, a multisite study by Krystal and colleagues (2001) found that naltrexone was not effective in treating men with chronic, severe alcohol dependence. Under certain conditions, naltrexone has been effective in treating individuals addicted to opioids (Cornish et al. 1997). Similarly, disulfiram (Antabuse®) has been an effective adjunct in the treatment of alcoholism (O'Farrell et al. 1998). Some IOT programs have implemented treatment tracks for clients maintained on methadone. Buprenorphine (Ling et al. 1998; O'Connor et al. 1998) and buprenorphine combined with naloxone (Fudala et al. 1998; Mendelson et al. 1999) are now available for the treatment of opioid dependence and can be prescribed at IOT programs that have medical personnel on staff.

Principle 11: Educate About Substance Use Disorders, Recovery, and Relapse

Provide Clients and Family Members With Information About Substance Use Disorders, Recovery Skills, and Relapse Prevention

An important task in IOT is educating clients about substance use disorders and the skills they need to live comfortably in recovery. A wealth of accurate, free information about substance abuse and recovery skills is available to clinicians through Web sites and other sources mentioned throughout this volume, but a good starting place is chapter 4 of TIP 33, Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders (CSAT 1999e ). IOT programs are encouraged to develop recovery curricula for clients (or use one already developed) and to facilitate opportunities for clients to practice recovery skills while in treatment. Substance refusal training, stress management, assertiveness training, relapse prevention, and relaxation training are important behavioral techniques that can be incorporated into IOT programs (Carroll 1998; CSAT 1999e ; Daley 2001, 2003; Marlatt and Gordon 1985; Mercer and Woody 1999). Clients should be provided with up-to-date information about the biology of substance use disorders, mutual-help programs, and appropriate use of medications.

Given the significant body of information that clients might need to support their recovery, programs are encouraged to explore the use of videotapes, written materials, and Web-based resources to help clients understand addiction and recovery. Consideration should be given to multiple approaches to educating clients, including lectures, discussions, workbook assignments, behavioral rehearsals or role plays, and daily logs or journals. Evaluation processes, such as feedback sessions, that monitor the clients' comprehension of key recovery skills are needed.

Principle 12: Engage Families, Employers, and Significant Others

Include Others Throughout the Treatment Process

The therapeutic involvement of families throughout the recovery process is associated with improved treatment outcomes (Epstein and McCrady 1998; McCrady et al. 1999; O'Farrell and Fals-Stewart 2003; Szapocznik and Williams 2000; White et al. 1998; Winters et al. 2002). Families can be a vital resource and a source of support and encouragement. Conversely, families also can influence the client adversely and undermine recovery. All clients are part of a group that functions as a “family” and as such are subject to the values, traditions, and culture of that family. IOT programs can marshal families' powerful positive influences or counter their negative influences by educating, counseling, and providing therapeutic family services. Referrals to therapists and organizations that provide family therapy should be considered when family therapy is unavailable in the IOT program.

When an individual has been referred for treatment by an employee assistance or student assistance program, representatives of the employer and school can play a potent role in supporting adherence to the treatment plan and ongoing recovery.

Principle 13: Incorporate Evidence-Based Approaches

Seek Out Evidence-Based Training Opportunities and Materials

Over the past 30 years a number of treatment approaches have been developed, tested, and demonstrated to be effective in a variety of settings (see chapter 8 for more information). These approaches include

IOT programs can adopt methods from these various treatment interventions. NIDA, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) have published manuals about these approaches, and most of these manuals are available free of charge. A number of other evidence-based manuals are listed throughout this TIP, including documents from NIAAA Project MATCH and CSAT's Addiction Technology Transfer Centers and other CSAT publications.

Some counselors who enter the substance abuse treatment profession do not have extensive training. For them, the needed skills are learned on the job. Evidence-based manuals summarize the experience of knowledgeable clinicians and researchers, passing on effective techniques and approaches that have been refined over the years. Not all IOT programs are the same—some achieve better outcomes than others. IOT programs can improve their outcomes by successfully incorporating evidence-based approaches. The consensus panel encourages the use of evidence-based approaches as a means of improving treatment outcomes.

Principle 14: Improve Program Administration

Focus on Financial, Information, and Human Resource Management

Clinicians frequently are promoted into the role of IOT program director without any formal training in how to function as an administrator. The tasks of management differ significantly from those of a clinician, and the transition from one role to the other is not always a smooth or natural one. IOT managers focus on the program's finances, regulatory compliance, human resource management, information management, administrative report preparation, and a host of other tasks that were not in their list of responsibilities as clinicians. TIP 46, Substance Abuse: Administrative Issues in Outpatient Treatment (CSAT 2006f ), addresses the administrative issues that IOT managers need to master to manage programs effectively.


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