How to Select the Right IOP for You

How Do You Find a Good Program? What Caution Signs Should You Watch Out For? (Download Our PDF Quality Checklist)

If you or a loved one is struggling with your mental health, you may be considering an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Perhaps a therapist or psychiatrist recommended it to you. Or you may have been searching online and stumbled upon this little-known (but powerful) treatment option. IOP uses personalized group therapy to help turn your situation around fast.

Now we strongly believe in the quality of our program at Plural Healthcare. (To learn more, call us at 314-388-2225.) However, sometimes people reach out who we’re not able to help directly with our IOP. They may live too far away, have financial limitations due to their insurance provider, or need a different type of care than we provide. When that happens, we’re often asked…

“How do I find an alternative IOP that’s right for me? How can I tell if a program is good or not? What are the main things I should look for?”

These are excellent questions. Choosing the right provider can make a big difference. While joining one that doesn’t fit your needs can leave you frustrated by ineffective (or even harmful) treatment.

So in this guide, we’ve compiled our top recommendations for choosing an IOP. And we’ve created a printable, one-page checklist you can use when you’re evaluating an intensive outpatient program. (This guide focuses on IOP, but much of it applies to other types of mental health care also.)

Download PDF: IOP Quality Checklist

Table of Contents

A 3-Step Process for Finding an IOP (or Other Mental Health Care)

Finding the right IOP program may feel like a daunting task. It can be tricky to sift through the many options available – some of which aren’t all that great.

Well-meaning companies sometimes lose sight of their mission or stop caring. Administrative bloat or corporate policies can turn people into faceless numbers in the system. And large hospitals don’t always treat IOP as a service worth devoting resources to. Some programs are straight-up scams too. (They’ll bill your insurance tens of thousands of dollars for so-called “treatment” or charge for services they never provided.)

Thankfully, many great IOP programs exist across the country (including in hospitals and big organizations). If you know what to look for, you can find a quality IOP that’s right for you.

Use this simple, 3-step process:

  1. Identify a few IOP providers in your area. Ask your therapist for a recommendation. Do a search on Google or Psychology Today for “intensive outpatient program”. Or contact your insurance provider to find out which programs are in-network.
  2. Screen the providers based on their website. Make sure they’re accredited by CARF (or an equivalent 3rd-party), have qualified clinical staff, and address the specific challenges you need help with. Also check for testimonials and clinical outcomes from past clients.
  3. Call them to learn more. Pay attention to how their staff treat you on the phone. Are they kind and considerate? Do they take time to explain things? The care they show on the phone reflects the care they provide in their program.

Let’s walk through the IOP selection criteria in detail. Then you can search for the right care with confidence.

The #1 Way to Evaluate an IOP: Do They Demonstrate Care on the Phone?

You can tell a lot about an IOP by calling them. How they treat you on the phone reveals how they’ll treat you in their program.

When you’re talking with them, ask yourself…

  • Are they genuinely helpful?
  • Do they answer your questions?
  • Do they take time to explain things?
  • Do you feel safe?
  • Are they competent and professional?
  • Does it sound like they respect you?
  • Do they seem interested in your situation and problems?
  • How do you feel about them overall?

These questions may seem a touch “subjective” or “emotion based”. That’s intentional. Your feelings, intuition, and gut instincts are valuable signals for selecting the right care. You should feel like a provider has your best interests at heart.

Still, some may argue…

Why does it matter if a receptionist isn’t the most helpful to you on the phone? They’re not the ones providing treatment. Isn’t the therapist the one you need to have a good connection with?

Yes and no. The therapist does lead the groups and handle most of your direct treatment. But how the front-line staff treats you reflects the culture of the entire organization. While you may get lucky and find a gem of a therapist in a toxic organization, that’s the exception rather than the rule. Bad organizations have bad clinicians more often than not.

You should feel a sense of care from your IOP provider right from the start. That’s a sign they’ll care for you when you’re in the program.

That said, you don’t just need to rely on your feelings or intuition when evaluating an IOP. There are straightforward, objective criteria to use too…

IOP Quality Checklist: Making Sure an Intensive Outpatient Program Is a Good Match

Before joining any program, take time to learn about the provider and what they do. Use whatever approach you’re most comfortable with. Some people like to read every page on the provider’s website in detail. Some prefer to skim the website quickly, dial the provider’s number, and then ask a bunch of questions on the phone. Others use a combination of the two.

Either way, you want to evaluate each IOP using the following questions:

Is the Program Accredited by an Independent 3rd Party? Does It Have Licensed Clinicians?

It can be hard from the outside to tell if the organization is well-run or not. We recommend you rely on a trusted 3rd party like CARF International. (There are also other recognized accreditors like Joint Commission and COA. Plural Healthcare works with CARF because they share our values for person-centered care and continual improvement.)

Seal of Approval
Look for the seal of approval from an objective 3rd-party like CARF International.

CARF Accreditation offers an independent, unbiased evaluation of the services you’ll receive. They thoroughly audit mental health providers and help guarantee a high standard of care. They ensure…

  1. The organization has detailed plans and policies for everything important – including about treatment process, staff training, health and safety, protection of private information, and much more.
  2. The organization actually follows those plans. CARF verifies this by reviewing meeting minutes, reports, and clinical data, and by interviewing staff and past clients.
  3. The organization has a clear roadmap for improvement and growth. This includes specific goals, a plan to achieve those goals, and measurable data to track progress.

If you’re going through a tough time with your mental health, you want to have confidence you’re going to get the care you need.

>> Learn about how CARF accreditation ensures quality at Plural Healthcare.

Also make sure the IOP groups are run by qualified clinical staff. Professional licenses such as LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) or LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) can help show you’re working with a trained clinician. But you’ll also want to make sure the therapist has experience leading and running IOP groups.

Does the IOP Provide Treatment for Your Specific Challenges?

This may sound like a basic thing, but pick a program that focuses on your condition or situation. For example, if you’re dealing with depression, a substance use or dual diagnosis IOP likely won’t provide the support and education you need. Instead, a mental health IOP will give you better, more relevant care.

There are many different types of IOPs:

  • Many treat addiction and substance use issues.
  • Some address eating disorders.
  • Others provide care for children or teens.
  • And others, like Plural Healthcare, focus on mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma).

The website of the provider should list the main conditions they address in their program. Or, if you’re not sure, call up the IOP and ask.They should happily answer whatever questions you have about their program.

Have Other People Experienced Positive Results From the Program? Are There Client Testimonials and Clinical Outcomes Listed?

Learn about a program using the experiences of other people. See how the IOP has helped others dealing with similar challenges.

1) If the IOP has a profile on Google, what are the reviews like? Are the reviews superficial or detailed? What things get commonly mentioned in the reviews (either positive or negative)? A single review on its own may not tell the full story. But reading through a bunch of them will give a decent overview.

2) Are there testimonials listed on the website? How do past clients describe their experience? Do they mention specific breakthroughs they made or discuss specific aspects they appreciated about the program?

3) Does the website mention clinical outcomes from past clients? This can take the form of industry-recognized assessments such as the PHQ9 and GAD7 scales (which measure levels of depression and anxiety). Or it could include other data like satisfaction survey results.

>> Learn About Plural Healthcare’s Clinical Outcomes Here

Testimonials and clinical metrics don’t guarantee you’ll experience the same results. But they show you what’s possible with the program. And they give you a glimpse into your potential experience. (If you don’t see any mention of what past clients experienced in the program, that’s a reason for caution.)

Does the IOP Provide Treatment In-Person?

Based on our clinical experience, we believe in-person IOP produces better outcomes than virtual programs. We have also investigated the latest research on virtual IOPs and tested telehealth programs directly.

Here’s why Plural Healthcare only offers IOP in-person:

  • Research supporting virtual IOPs is not conclusive enough. Initial research on virtual IOPs may be promising, but we would like to see larger studies that combine data from multiple IOP providers (including a diverse range of geographic areas, treatment approaches, and program types).
  • In-Person IOP provides a better environment for treatment. The IOP center offers a comfortable and distraction-free space to focus. And attending in-person helps shift you into the right frame of mind for healing.
  • In-Person IOP enables stronger group connections. In-person programs lets you connect with other group members on a deeper level than if you were just talking through a computer screen. The more you connect with others in the group, the more you discover, grow, and heal.
In person IOP group discussion.
In our clinical experience, attending IOP in-person leads to better results.

That said, not everyone has easy access to a nearby IOP. You may live in a remote area or have mobility issues that prevent you from traveling to a mental health center. Telehealth programs can offer a useful alternative in that case. But if possible, we recommend attending IOP in-person.

Does the IOP Provide Personalized Treatment?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health care. When you’re choosing an IOP provider, make sure they customize treatment to your specific situation and needs. This means:

1) You work with the therapist to choose 2-3 primary goals for while you’re in the program. IOP isn’t a passive treatment that just “happens to you”. It’s important that you and the therapist work toward clear goals that matter to you.

2) The clinical team creates a custom treatment plan for each client. This plan details interventions, tools, and resources to help you meet your desired goals. (Your treatment team will revisit this weekly to address anything that comes up during the program.)

3) The therapist adjusts the curriculum or education to meet the needs of the group members. The clinical team will have a plan of what topics to cover in each session. But they should also adapt that plan based on what you (and other clients) need.

For example, one client recently shared about a situation where he struggled to set boundaries. So we adapted the planned discussion and helped him discover he had the right to stand up for himself. (He wasn’t the only one who benefited either. Several other group members told us afterwards that they found the discussion on boundaries helpful.)

Does the IOP Have Clear Expectations for You in the Program?

IOP is not a passive treatment. It’s not a pill or drug. It’s not a lecture where you simply show up and pretend to listen.

Like most things in life, you get out of IOP what you put in. How wonderful is that, by the way? Because amazing transformation is possible in group. IOP gives you a safe, judgment-free space to work through your challenges. Your therapist is there to empower and guide you through the process. And your fellow group members will encourage and inspire you.

But it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity. You have to actively participate in the program.

A quality IOP provider will have well-defined expectations for your participation in the program. They’ll want to see:

  • Commitment to the program.
  • Desired goals from your treatment.
  • Regular attendance.
  • Courtesy and respect to other group members.
  • Active engagement and participation in group.

This isn’t just about any one person and what they may (or may not) get out of IOP. It’s about the entire group. You’re going to have a better experience (and see better outcomes) in an IOP where everyone in group shows up engaged and committed.

Is the IOP Realistic About Potential Treatment Outcomes?

Anyone who claims they’ll permanently end your depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other condition is misleading you. They’re giving unrealistic expectations, and you should choose another provider.

This doesn’t mean you can’t find relief or healing in IOP. You can. Many of our clients describe IOP as one of the most transformative and powerful experiences of their lives.

But IOP is not a “miracle cure”. It won’t make all your problems vanish overnight. Instead, IOP is designed to help turn your situation around and set you on the path toward long-term healing.

Note: At Plural Healthcare, our goal is to quickly get you to a stable, more peaceful place. Then we help match you to the ideal therapist (and treatment specialization) for continued care. Your individual therapist support your journey over the months and years to come.

Does the IOP Have Well-Defined Admission Criteria?

This may sound strange, but an IOP should be looking for reasons not to admit you. They should care enough to help you find the best treatment for you – even if that means referring you elsewhere.

IOP may not be an appropriate option. Those with some conditions (such as schizophrenia or personality disorder) may not respond well to the therapy and education provided in IOP. Other people may struggle with the group setting. And others might need a more intensive level of care than IOP can provide (especially in the case of severe or chronic conditions).

Personalized IOP Treatment Plan
The IOP provider should care enough about you to make sure their program is a good fit.

Some programs accept whoever they can get though, even those who shouldn’t really be in the program. This wastes your time and money, leaves you frustrated by ineffective treatment, and disrupts the IOP group dynamic – leading to poor results for other clients.

So make sure the IOP’s website specifies what they treat (rather than just saying they treat every condition possible). And when you’re talking to the staff at an IOP, listen for:

  • Do they ask detailed, specific questions about your situation?
  • Do they seem to be evaluating your situation against a clear admission criteria?
  • Does it sound like they care about you and what’s best for you?

Again, IOP is not for everyone. If a given program isn’t for you, don’t worry. It just means other options may better match your needs.

Do They Accept Your Insurance? Are They Upfront About Financial Costs?

We’re not going to pretend that money doesn’t matter. It does. And you deserve to know the financial costs of attending IOP upfront. This empowers you to make an informed decision. It helps you avoid unnecessary financial uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. And it allows you to better focus on your treatment.

The good news is that most insurance companies cover IOP treatment – assuming you meet the requirements for the program. (Our IOP, for example, is covered by all major private insurance providers in the St. Louis area.) Many IOP providers also offer affordable self-payment options for those without insurance.

Either way, your provider should be fully transparent about any costs. You want to know what to expect before you start the program. (At Plural Healthcare, we’ll confirm coverage with your insurance. And we’ll give a detailed cost estimate based on your current plan, deductible, and max out-of-pocket.)

If You Have Medicare/Medicaid: For a long time, IOP was not at all covered under Medicare or Medicaid. The government introduced new regulations in 2024 allowing limited coverage for intensive outpatient programs. Unfortunately, these regulations are restrictive. A large number of providers (including independent IOPs like Plural Healthcare) cannot accept Medicare or Medicaid for IOP under the new rules. We hope this changes in the future so more people can access the treatment they need.

If You’re Helping Someone Else Find Care, Does the IOP Speak Privately With Your Loved One Before Enrollment?

Rather than seeking treatment for yourself, you may be helping a child, partner, friend, or other loved one find mental health care. (What a wonderful gift. You can save your loved one a lot of time, stress, and frustration by doing research on their behalf. And your support makes it more likely they’ll get the help they need.)

In this case, we recommend you handle the initial research for them. Seek out a few providers and review their websites using the criteria outlined above. Call the provider up to see if they may be a good fit.

After that though, please have your loved one speak privately with the provider. Your loved one needs to choose for themselves whether IOP is right for them… and have confidence that it can help them reach their goals. Then they’ll be committed to participating in the program and will more likely see positive results.

This is a strict requirement at Plural Healthcare. We will not admit anyone into our program unless we’ve spoken with them in-depth. If you find an IOP willing to enroll a client without first consulting with them, run away.

The Final Decision Belongs to You

The above questions and standards are designed to help you know what to look for – and what to avoid. Use them to assess potential IOP providers (even including Plural Healthcare). But remember, you get to decide. You get to choose what care can best help you.

Woman looking out at what's ahead of her.
Do you feel the IOP program will help you transform your situation and reach your goals? You get to decide if a program is right for you.

One of our clients, LB, shared this with us recently:

I reached a low point in my life (due to anxiety & depression) and needed more support than I could get from family and friends. I didn’t know where to go, so I did some research and found out about Plural Healthcare. I had no idea what an IOP was and had never been to group therapy. I ended up calling and talking to their staff – who answered my many questions with patience and understanding.

I entered the program and it was one of the best decisions of my life. It was exactly what I needed to learn how my past shaped who I was and how I was dealing with stress and life. The group discussions were one the best parts of the program (in addition to the education and truly amazing therapists). Within the group, there was a level of acceptance, trust and openness that helped me understand who I am and that I am not alone. It truly was a life-changing experience for me.

We’re honored to have had LB in our program. Her example is an inspiration. And while there are many takeaways from her story, for now we’ll just highlight one of them.

Notice how she took responsibility for her care. She chose to seek out help in the first place. She researched a few options. She was curious and actively explored whether IOP could help her or not. And above all, once she joined the program, she kept on deciding to show up and participate in the group.

At Plural Healthcare, we believe in a person-centered approach – where individuals get treated with dignity and take ownership of their journey. Help is available. But you’re the one who has to take the first step and embrace the support available to you. When you do, remarkable transformation is possible. It can be, as LB put it, a “life-changing experience”.