Virtual Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment & Recovery Programs

Marisa Crane
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Virtual outpatient eating disorder treatment, which involves attending a program that is app-based, is revolutionizing the way people receive care for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, allowing them to recover within the comfort of their own home. There are many barriers to receiving quality treatment, such as childcare or caregiver duties, scheduling conflicts, geographical barriers, treatment costs, transportation, and stigma, leaving many people untreated. Online eating disorder treatment helps increase access to much-needed care.

What is App-Based Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment?

App-based outpatient eating disorder treatment involves attending an outpatient program virtually, using the program’s specialized app. Patients can find generally everything they need during their virtual stay within the app, including individual and group therapy video calls, care team messaging, meal support, group meals, recovery tools, check-ins, and beyond.

The best virtual programs will offer the same features and evidence-based modalities of an in-person treatment program but they allow patients to work their recovery around their busy schedule and attend treatment sessions from their home or wherever they’re comfortable.

Eating disorder patients receive individualized, trauma-informed, and comprehensive treatment from a multidisciplinary team which may include some or all of the following:

  • Therapists
  • Nurses
  • Psychiatrists
  • Movement specializes
  • Registered dieticians
  • Cooking instructors
  • Breathwork specialists

App-based outpatient treatment programs provide specialized treatment for various eating disorders, such as virtual outpatient binge eating disorder treatment, at-home bulimia treatment, and app-based anorexia treatment. They also typically treat dual diagnoses, or co-occurring disorders, as well as treatment for specific, under-served populations, such as members of the LGBTQ+ community, older adults, men, and more.

Types of Virtual Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatments

Virtual treatments are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to traditional forms of treatment for people struggling with  anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating disorders. These at-home eating disorder treatments often involve the use of digital technologies such as apps, websites, and wearable devices that help people manage and monitor their eating disorder. Outpatient eating disorder apps often provide users with personalized and interactive features such as meal tracking, virtual therapy sessions, and motivational reminders.

Virtual Outpatient Binge Eating Disorder Treatment

Virtual binge eating disorder treatment is a form of treatment that utilizes technology to provide individuals with resources and tools to address the symptoms of binge eating disorder. Through a range of digital tools, individuals can gain access to evidence-based treatment for binge eating from the comfort of their own home. Outpatient binge eating disorder treatment apps may also help provide individuals with a range of customized solutions tailored to their specific needs and goals.

Virtual Outpatient Anorexia Nervosa Treatment

Virtual anorexia treatment is an innovative and convenient way for those battling an eating disorder to get the help they need. Through an outpatient anorexia nervosa treatment app, users are able to access a range of eating disorder therapy options, as well as get support from other users who understand what they are going through. With virtual anorexia treatment, people can get the same high-quality care as in-person treatment, but with the flexibility of being able to access it from anywhere. The benefits include lower cost, less stigma, and improved accessibility for those who can’t access traditional treatment. Virtual anorexia nervosa treatment can provide people with the effective tools they need to overcome this eating disorder and lead a healthy and happy life.

Virtual Outpatient Bulimia Treatment

Outpatient bulimia treatment apps are an innovative approach to helping those with bulimia nervosa. Many bulimia treatment apps allow for an individualized approach to treatment, as users can access a range of digital resources and treatments tailored to their specific needs. This form of eating disorder treatment offers a more convenient, private, and cost-effective way of accessing professional care, as well as greater flexibility in managing treatment sessions. Furthermore, the platform can provide a community of people struggling with similar issues, which can be a crucial source of emotional support for those in recovery. Ultimately, virtual bulimia treatment can be an invaluable way to help individuals return to a healthy life.

Virtual Outpatient Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder Treatment

Virtual treatment for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) provides a convenient and non-intimidating platform to access treatment. Through an outpatient eating disorder app, individuals are able to learn healthy eating habits, practice mindful eating, and build self-awareness. Outpatient eating disorder treatment also allows for easy access to resources and educational material, such as videos, blogs, and podcasts. Additionally, individuals have the option of connecting with professional counselors and coaches, who can provide support and guidance throughout their recovery journey. Furthermore, at-home eating disorder treatment apps may offer personalized meal plans, help track progress, and encourage self-monitoring, which all aid in positive long-term outcomes for those suffering from Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.

Virtual Outpatient Rumination Disorder Treatment (VRD)

Virtual rumination disorder (VRD) is a growing problem that has been traditionally difficult to treat. The development of outpatient VRD treatment apps has shown promise in providing effective treatment. These programs make it easier for patients to recover from this conditiont, as they are more accessible than traditional in-person therapy. Additionally, most apps incorporate elements of gamification, providing a more engaging treatment experience. Studies have also found that VRD treatment applications can be more cost-effective than traditional, in-person treatment, as they require fewer resources. As a result, virtual VRD treatment programs allow patients to obtain treatment that is both more effective and more affordable.

Virtual Outpatient Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)

Outpatient treatment for Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) using apps has become increasingly popular within the medical community as an alternative to traditional face-to-face therapy. An OSFED treatment app can offer patients 24/7 access to a wide range of personalized resources and tools, including customizable meal plans, recipes, and meal reminders. Additionally, virtual eating disorder treatment apps for OSFED can offer users the ability to track their progress and achievements, which can be incredibly helpful in motivating them during their recovery.

Levels of Care Offered for Home-Based Treatment Programs

Just like an in-person outpatient setting, app-based programs typically offer several levels of care and intensiveness, depending on a patient’s needs, the severity of their symptoms, support system, and more. These levels may include:

  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs): The most intensive outpatient option, patients receive several hours per day of treatment and support.
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs): A step down from a PHP, an IOP still includes a high frequency of care, typically offering a few hours of treatment, several days per week.
  • Step-down care: Some patients transitioning home from residential treatment for an eating disorder may need additional support in the form of virtual care to help ease their reintegration.

Those who aren’t sure which level is right for them can either receive an assessment from their medical provider, who can then refer them to the appropriate setting, or wait to receive the intake evaluation through the virtual treatment team.

The Virtual Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment Process

Getting Started

Attending eating disorder treatment online is generally an easy process. Getting started typically involves having an initial consultation via phone call with a therapist who will ask you general questions about your eating disorder and history. Then, before beginning the program, prospective patients complete an intake evaluation with a treatment professional who assesses their medical and mental health, eating disorder severity and duration, symptoms, treatment needs, and more.

After the assessment, health insurance coverage is confirmed and the treatment program may also present other financing options.

Those interested in attending app-based outpatient eating disorder treatment must also get medical clearance from their primary care physician. This is a safety precaution since high-risk patients or those with comorbid medical conditions may be safer in a hospital or inpatient setting.

Once someone has been cleared, they’ll collaborate with the treatment team to decide on an admission date, the day that the program formally begins. But before their treatment even begins, their treatment team will often begin to get the family involved, educating them on what to expect during the recovery program and how they can support their recovering loved one. Meanwhile, patients will meet with the onboarding team to learn the ins and outs of the app so that they feel comfortable using it upon admission.

At the start of the program, patients typically receive the tools they need to start on their recovery journey, which may include a blood pressure cuff, thermometer, and a numberless scale to support the monitoring of their at-home treatment. Then, the real work begins.

Weekly Treatment Scheduling and Modalities

The care team will create an individualized treatment plan as well as a personalized schedule that reflects each patient’s needs. And throughout the program, this plan may be adjusted, depending on what’s working.

Throughout the week, patients will receive a variety of at-home treatment services designed to help them recover from their eating disorder and heal their relationship with food and movement.

Individual Therapy

The best app-based outpatient eating disorder treatment programs utilize a combination of evidence-based therapies, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients to understand the connection between their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors so that they can change these three interacting things. CBT also helps build coping skills and challenge harmful self-beliefs.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT teaches a variety of skills that can help improve emotional regulation, distress tolerance, communication, and relationships. It also encourages mindfulness.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT is a mindfulness-based therapy that helps patients to develop a sense of identity and self, accept their circumstances (i.e. “I have an eating disorder”), commit to making choices that reflect their values, and more.
  • Exposure therapy: Under the umbrella of CBT, exposure therapy is a safe and effective way to reduce anxiety and fears related to beliefs about food and movement. For this reason, meals and movement groups are typically exposure therapy for patients.

Group Counseling

There are many different types of group therapies, such as CBT group, DBT group, and ACT group, all of which can provide benefits that a person might not receive in individual therapy. Working with other people can be therapeutic, increasing bonds, leading to insights, and promoting a feeling of belonging.

Family Therapy

As with group counseling, there are many types of family therapy. Most virtual outpatient eating disorder treatment programs offer some type of family therapy or family involvement, which may involve psychoeducation of the family, helping the family create a supportive environment for recovery, and improving family communication and conflict resolution.

Nutritional Counseling

Many online outpatient eating disorder treatment programs offer nutritional counseling and weekly nutrition groups. This may involve weight restoration or stabilization, meal planning, and safe exposure to various fear-based foods.

Experiential Therapy

Quality at-home treatment programs often use experiential therapies, such as art therapy and movement therapy, to encourage creative expression, improve emotional processing, and deepen patient insight into their eating disorder.

Experiential Outings

Experiential outings, such as going to a bookstore or going clothes shopping, are an opportunity for patients to get out of the house, have fun, learn something new, and immerse themselves in an experience.

Afterhours Support

If needed, some programs allow patients to connect with a member of their care team even outside of treatment hours so they can receive the support they need through hard times.

At-Home Medical Monitoring

Patient health should always be top of mind, which is why quality app-based eating disorder treatment programs have the tools necessary to virtually monitor patient vitals like blood pressure and heart rate.

Meal Support, Planning, and Delivery

Many virtual eating disorder treatment programs are able to offer individualized meal plans, grocery lists, shopping assistance, instructions on how to build a plate, cooking lessons, and even meal delivery, which can take the stress out of planning, shopping, and prep. This meal support also includes processing feelings prior to eating meals as well as after-meal processing.

Aftercare and Alumni Support

A patient’s recovery journey doesn’t end when their virtual treatment program ends—recovery is a lifelong process that often requires ongoing support. Some at-home outpatient programs may offer alumni programs, which allow patients to continue to connect with their treatment team and other alumni well after their virtual IOP or PHP has come to an end.

Benefits of Enrolling in an App-Based Treatment Program

There are many advantages to choosing an at-home eating disorder treatment program, including:

  • Convenience
  • Privacy and comfort
  • Customized treatment scheduling
  • Access to self-guided recovery content and tools
  • After-hours support
  • Easy access to the care team via messaging
  • Meal deliveries
  • No transportation needed

Additionally, virtual programs increase treatment access for people who have historically felt excluded from traditional in-person treatment programs, such as individuals living in larger bodies, queer and transgender people, people of color, and men. Quality virtual programs not only provide an inclusive setting but staff culturally competent providers as well as diverse professionals so patients can feel reflected in their treatment.

Does Health Insurance Cover At-Home Eating Disorder Treatment?

Some health insurance plans and providers provide coverage for virtual eating disorder treatment while others do not. The extent of coverage can vary as well, with some insurance plans providing full coverage and others covering a percentage of the cost. Those interested in attending at-home binge eating disorder treatment or a program for another eating disorder will need to call their insurance provider to learn more about their specific coverage. They can also tell their eating disorder care team about their insurance policy during the initial phone call to learn what their options are.

In-Person vs. App-Based Treatment: How Effective Are Online Eating Disorder Treatment Programs?

Though virtual outpatient eating disorder recovery programs are relatively new, early research has shown that online programs are just as effective as traditional in-person ones. In fact, one study comparing an in-person IOP and a virtual IOP revealed no differences in treatment outcomes between the two settings. Both treatment settings improved eating disorder symptoms, perfectionism symptoms, and depression while increasing body mass index. (1)

Another study comparing in-person and virtual outpatient ED treatment found that the results were comparable, demonstrating similar improvements in weight gain and eating disorder symptoms, as well as similar patient satisfaction. (2)

Moreover, research related to the efficacy for adolescents has shown that virtual family-based therapy (FBT) was as effective as in-person therapy, with eating disorder symptoms cut in half, anxiety and depression symptoms reduced by a third, and 80% of those with weight restoration goals achieving their goals. Further, caregivers also reported an increase in self-efficacy. (3)

App-based care has also been shown to improve self-esteem, quality of life, and treatment satisfaction. (4)

These results are promising for those wanting an alternative to brick-and-mortar programs. Online outpatient eating disorder treatment can expand access to care, improve symptoms, empower people to seek treatment, and help recovering individuals find meaningful community.