Inpatient Treatment for Bulimia: What to Expect 

Many different levels of care can help people struggling with eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa (BN). No type of eating disorder treatment is “better” or “worse,” but rather more well-suited for someone’s particular case.

Inpatient bulimia treatment

Inpatient treatment is a very regimented type of care, best for someone with a more severe case of BN. Also called residential treatment, inpatient programs require a patient to stay at a facility throughout their treatment, which could take weeks or months.

In this environment, patients are separated from any triggers in their home life, have 24/7 access to medical care, and are taught the skills they need to eat, work, and live safely, with more autonomy. 

Many patients will transition from inpatient care to intensive outpatient treatment or other types of outpatient programs, where they begin living at home and incorporating the skills they’ve learned into their personal worlds.

The Basics of Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient care is a more intensive program than an outpatient program. Generally, it’s considered the best course of treatment for people whose bulimia nervosa symptoms are more severe.

Sometimes, you may first have to be hospitalized before enrolling in an inpatient treatment facility. That’s to ensure all patients are medically stable when they start the program.

Otherwise, people generally considered good candidates for this type of treatment program usually showcase disordered behaviors, which may pose a severe and immediate risk to their own health. They may also struggle to get their body the nutrients it needs on their own. 

Specifically, common admission criteria for inpatient eating disorder treatment include: [1]

Many people who develop eating disorders also have an unsafe or unstable home life. In these cases, inpatient treatment can offer additional benefits that can help contribute to a full recovery.

How Long Does an Inpatient Program Last?

The length of inpatient treatment varies from case to case. Some patients require only a few weeks at a treatment center, while others may need additional time to work on their condition.

Generally, your treatment team will work with you to develop a treatment plan. This can include:

  • Your primary physician
  • Physicians at the center
  • Nursing staff
  • Counselors
  • Other medical professionals

While this agreement can be, and is, changed as needed, it will likely include goals for the length of time you’re expected to stay at an inpatient facility.

Once out of inpatient treatment, you may continue receiving treatment through a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program, or a similar treatment option. These types of care are generally a “step down” from inpatient treatment centers, offering continued access to care that is somewhat more intense and regimented than typical outpatient treatment but allows you to live at home and develop more autonomy over time.

What Kind of Care Is Provided?

The care provided at an inpatient treatment program is usually highly focused on a patient’s needs and on getting them to a point where they can better adhere to a traditional outpatient treatment program. [2]

To do this, inpatient treatment for bulimia nervosa utilizes several types of care, including:

  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Nutritional rehabilitation, including nutrition counseling
  • Pharmacotherapy (medication prescriptions or management)
  • Access to a registered dietician
  • Access to a general medical clinician

The first goal for patients in severe crises is almost always medical stabilization. Severe eating disorders can cause a person’s body to develop various life-threatening medical complications, and these symptoms must be addressed before the patient’s psychological needs can start being met.

Once a person is considered medically stable, they are given a thorough medical and psychiatric evaluation. This is generally when a medical team will decide whether someone will benefit from inpatient care or start developing elements of their treatment plan.

The Possibilities of Virtual Inpatient Treatment

The confluence of expanding technological capabilities and the recent pandemic have helped push the virtual treatment movement to the forefront of the medical world.

This type of care is called telehealth, and it allows a patient to talk with medical professionals and attend specific therapies, like group therapy, online rather than in-person. 

Even for patients receiving inpatient care, telehealth allows for a hybrid approach to treatment. Some inpatient treatment providers use this technology to give patients access to additional medical experts who may not be at the same facility, or may be too far for the patient to realistically reach in person. [3]

Telehealth or hybrid options that involve it can be especially helpful for patients in rural or otherwise resource-scarce areas. The online connection allows more options for specialized mental health care when it may otherwise be more challenging to get.

Recovering from Bulimia Nervosa

Like all serious mental health conditions, BN is complex and complicated and often takes a long time to achieve full recovery. In these cases, ongoing care is usually necessary for some period of time, whether it be regular check-ins with a mental health therapist or check-ups with a physical doctor, who can help you manage any medications you may also be taking.

Still, there are some forms of therapy that are commonly recommended for people struggling with BN, regardless of which level of care they’re receiving.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is perhaps the most widely recommended type of psychotherapy for bulimia nervosa and a number of other eating disorders. The concept of CBT is that disordered behaviors are borne of disordered thoughts, so therapy focuses on helping a patient identify and then change these unhelpful patterns.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another commonly recommended type of therapy for bulimia nervosa. While DBT operates off similar principles as CBT, this type of therapy adds in the idea that two things can be true at once. In these cases, someone can learn to love and accept themselves while still understanding they need to change some unhelpful behaviors.

And aside from psychotherapy, many patients also benefit from nutritional counseling throughout their treatment. Working with a registered dietitian to learn about the importance of food in general or the healthiest way to consume food can give someone the skills to eat more autonomously and hopefully avoid relapse.

Finding Help for Bulimia Nervosa

If you or a loved one are struggling with bulimia nervosa, it’s important to seek help. The condition impacts any number of bodily systems and tends to only get worse with time.

You can speak with your primary doctor or therapist if you need help figuring out where to start. These medical professionals can advise you where to look for the best treatment program or even which treatment programs are best for your particular case.

You can also speak with representatives from your health insurance company for guidance on which programs they may be more likely to cover. Eating disorder treatment can be costly, and, unfortunately, this represents a significant barrier to care for many. Still, there are some ways to find low-cost treatment options, even if your insurance isn’t willing to pay for treatment.

Regardless, the most important thing is to speak up. It may seem difficult to make the first move, but seeking out treatment for bulimia nervosa will help you instill healthier habits that have all the potential to lead to a longer and happier life.


  1. Treatment Overview. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved December 2022.
  2. Yager, J. (2022, October 26). Eating Disorders: Overview of Prevention and Treatment. UpToDate. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  3. Siwicki, B. (2022, June 20). How Telehealth Can Help Inpatient Care, and What a Hybrid Future Looks Like. HealthcareITNews. Retrieved December 9, 2022.

Last Update | 02 - 8 - 2023

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