Higher Levels of Care for Eating Disorders: A Practical Guide

October 31, 2019

Eating disorders (ED) are associated with significant comorbid psychopathology and the most extensive medical complications of any psychiatric disorder.


Eating disorders (ED) are associated with significant comorbid psychopathology and the most extensive medical complications of any psychiatric disorder. Disordered behaviors that present across diagnoses (eg, restriction, binge eating, compensatory behaviors) are linked with acute medical risks that often require careful medical monitoring and clinical intervention. Yet, individuals with EDs frequently express hesitancy towards recovery and have great difficulty controlling their ED symptoms.

EDs are typically chronic and follow a treatment-refractory trajectory. Existing research indicates that even the most effective evidence-based outpatient treatment yields recovery for only around one-half of patients.1-3 In our clinic, we often encounter patients like “Hayley,” “Georgia,” and “Michael” (see Case Vignettes) for whom outpatient treatment has been unsuccessful. Like many other eating disorder treatment programs, our program seeks to optimize recovery by providing more intensive treatment with stepped levels of care.


Hayley is a 24-year-old graduate student and a competitive runner who competes regularly. She has a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, restricting type (AN-R), which developed when she was 20 after a period of binging. Two years ago, Hayley began working with a multidisciplinary outpatient team, but she has continued to lose weight. She attributes the weight loss to her unwillingness to eat the large amount of food it would take to offset the calories she burns while running and training. She initially presented to her primary care physician feeling weak then was admitted to an inpatient eating disorders unit for bradycardia. Upon discharge from the hospital she was referred to a partial hospitalization treatment program.

Most research explores the efficacy of treatment at the outpatient level; little is known about the comparative value of the higher levels of care for patients with EDs.4 However, these approaches are important alternatives for treatment-refractory EDs because they provide the more intensive treatment and meal support that many severely ill patients need.1,2 Common reasons for needing higher levels of care include substantial weight loss that might be life threatening; difficulty eating enough food to gain weight; severe binge/purge behaviors; incapacitating ED symptoms; comorbid substance abuse; and anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or suicidal intent.

It is not unusual that such behaviors result in medical instability with symptoms of cardiovascular compromise, electrolyte disturbances, or hypoglycemia. It is important to note that some individuals have a lack of insight about their behaviors or are not motivated to engage in treatment. Because of these factors, the mortality rate for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can be 5% or higher.5,6 Higher levels of care provide a structured and protective environment that can be essential for these serious, life-threatening disorders.


Georgia, aged 17 years, has bulimia nervosa (BN) with comorbid major depressive disorder, panic attacks, and a history of sexual trauma. She has been engaging in polysubstance abuse, including alcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers, and cocaine, since the age of 12. She has been hospitalized several times for suicide attempts and accidental drug overdoses. She binges and purges daily and states that she is only able to reduce these behaviors when using substances. Her outpatient therapist feels overwhelmed by all of Georgia’s comorbidities and is not sure how to help her reduce these self-destructive behaviors, so she refers Georgia to a PHP program.

Description of available higher levels

Higher levels of care for EDs include various types of programs, with different levels of intensity.

The treatment goals for EDs are similar and include:7

• Restoring weight;

• Interrupting binge, purge, and restrictive behaviors;

• Managing physical complications;

• Enhancing motivation for recovery;

• Providing psychoeducation regarding regular eating;

• Challenging ED-related cognitions;

• Treating comorbid conditions;

• Supplementing family support; and

• Preventing relapse.

Psychotherapy approaches among higher levels of care are typically informed by cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapies. Family-based treatment is often incorporated for children and adolescents. Patients might transition between levels of care due to variables such as symptom severity, medical status, motivational status, treatment history, and financial limitations.7,8

There are several different levels of care from which to choose:

1) Inpatient hospitalization is the highest level of care available. This setting can be in a medical hospital and is intended for patients with acute medical instability. Alternatively, this may be in a psychiatric hospital if there are severe behavioral symptoms. In either event, subspecialty medical and behavioral consultation are readily available, meals are supervised, and one-to-one monitoring is available.

2) Residential programs offer full-time treatment in a non-hospital setting. Patients receive multidisciplinary care that includes nutritional support, medication management, and individual and group therapy.

3) Partial hospitalization programs (PHP), or daytreatment, offer treatment in an outpatient setting approximately six to 10 hours a day, between three and seven days per week. Patients typically spend nights and sometimes weekends on their own, allowing them to practice the skills they are learning in social, occupational, and leisure settings outside of treatment.

4) Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) offer treatment approximately three hours a day, from three to five days per week. At both the PHP and IOP levels, patients receive meal support, group therapy, individual therapy, dietary sessions, and medication management.

Outcomes research

Treatment efficacy for higher levels of care. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are necessary to avoid the confounding effects of psychopathology severity and evaluate the comparative efficacy of different levels of care. Since patients with more severe symptoms and greater functional impairment are more likely to present to higher levels of care than those with mild ED pathology (and milder ED pathology is associated with better outcomes), reliable findings are dependent on patients matched with controls based on symptom severity or random assignment to level of care.

Unfortunately, RCTs that compare different levels of care are limited given significant costs and ethical considerations related to randomizing acutely ill patients. As such, literature on higher levels of care treatment efficacy is scarce and consists largely of open trials assessing outcome at discharge. A 2015 review of PHP and residential programs identified that duration of treatment was similar between these levels of care, and all but one study reported improvements in outcomes (ie, body mass index [BMI], number of binge/purge episodes) at discharge.4

There have been several, more recent naturalistic studies of higher levels of care treatment that also offer support for the effectiveness of care in most patients.9,10 However, less than half of the open trials identified in the review reported follow-up data after discharge.4 Moreover, follow-up completion rates tend to be low; the average rate of follow-up completion was 66% for PHP and 37% for residential. Although most of the studies reported that positive treatment outcomes at discharge were maintained or improved at follow-up, the missing data at follow-up make long-term results difficult to interpret.

Predictors of recovery

As previously mentioned, the literature on treatment efficacy at higher levels of care is preliminary and consists largely of open trials. Within the context of these trials, researchers have begun to study the predictors of long-term recovery. However, more is known about predictors of recovery from EDs in general, regardless of type of treatment, and no study has looked at how predictors of successful outcome might differ depending on level of care received.

Vall and Wade11 conducted a metaanalysis of predictors of treatment outcome that included a large number of patients treated at a higher level of care. Their findings indicate that patients with higher BMI, fewer binge/purge behaviors, greater motivation to recover, lower depression, lower shape/weight concern, fewer comorbidities, better interpersonal functioning, and fewer familial problems at baseline had better outcomes both at end-of-treatment and follow-up. The most robust predictor of outcome at both end-of-treatment and follow-up was the meditational mechanism of greater early symptom change.

The literature consistently corroborates that early behavioral change predicts later symptom remission.12,13 Given that higher levels of care treatment settings typically involve meal supervision and more opportunities to quickly learn skills, these settings may be uniquely well-suited to facilitating early symptom change.

Determining level of care

When determining the appropriate level of care, practitioners should consider practice guidelines published by reputable organizations as well as individual variables important in predicting treatment response. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), and National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) published guidelines for ED treatment that outline factors to consider in making decisions regarding level of care.7,8,14,15


Michael is a 12-year-old boy who has avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks. He endorses fear of food contamination and reports eating the same foods at the same time every day to avoid illness and/or vomiting. Michael has seen outpatient providers over the past few years for low weight, stunted growth, and gastrointestinal complaints. He was recently admitted to an inpatient eating disorders unit for low weight. Following discharge, he was unable to maintain weight at the outpatient level due to food-related fears resulting in restricted intake. As such, he was readmitted to the inpatient unit; he was later referred to PHP for continued care.

The NICE and RANZCP guidelines recommend first seeking outpatient care and suggest transfering to higher levels of care if there is no improvement of symptoms. Alternatively, the APA advises consideration of various factors when making initial treatment recommendations (Table 1). All guidelines clearly outline criteria for determining medical stability and recommend that patients who do meet these requirements be considered for admission to inpatient hospitalization (Table 2). A recent update on the medical management of EDs offers a list of criteria that indicate medical instability in adolescents that deviates slightly from the APA recommendations.16

The RANZCP and APA guidelines suggest that inpatient treatment may be needed if ED symptoms are uncontrolled and require 24-hour supervision. Inpatient care and partial hospitalization also are appropriate when there is significant risk of suicide or self-harm. The NICE and APA guidelines advise considering logistical issues concerning the geographic location of treatment; they recommend that patients first receive care at facilities close to their home. Research indicates that PHPs are more cost-effective than residential or inpatient treatment; therefore, financial factors are important considerations.17,18 Clinicians might also consider recent scientific developments related to variables that account for significant variance in treatment response.19


As any clinician who works with patients who have EDs knows, there are, unfortunately, many patients who are treatment resistant in outpatient care. For patients like Hayley, Georgia, and Michael, specialized higher levels of care facilities can be a relief for the clinician and life-changing for the patient.

Hayley was able to achieve her ideal body weight with PHP and stepped down to IOP. She decided not to return to competitive sports before returning to her outpatient team. Georgia stopped using drugs and alcohol within the structure of PHP, participated in weekly family therapy, and learned skills for coping with emotional dysregulation. Michael restored his weight in PHP through repeated food exposures that helped him increase his food volume and variety and decrease his fears surrounding contamination.

For many of the complex, severely ill patients who present to treatment, intensive treatment with stepped levels of care can offer a cost-effective structure that promotes positive behavioral change.


Dr Anderson is Associate Clinical Professor Director of Training, Ms Simpson is Milieu Therapist, and
Dr Kaye is Professor and Founder and Executive Director, Eating Disorders Program, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, CA. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


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