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GPs failing to help people with eating disorders

OnMedica staff

Monday, 23 February 2009

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Patients with eating disorders are not being helped enough by their GPs who are often unaware of the condition and what services are available to help, according to a survey.

The charity Beat (Beating Eating Disorders) also found that although many people with these disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, approach their GP first for help, their experience of getting the help they needed is often poor.

Beat surveyed 1,500 people affected by an eating disorder about their experiences of visiting their GP.

Most said they encountered uninformed GPs and a widespread lack of understanding.

Eating disorders are thought to affect more than 1.1 million people in the UK and most recent figures showed an 80% rise in the number of young girls admitted to hospital with anorexia in England over the last decade.

Beat said 59% of people visit their GP about their eating disorder worries, something it encourages people to do.

However, the survey Choice or Change? found that only 15% of people felt their GP understood eating disorders and knew how to help.

One person taking part in the survey said: “When I first went to see my GP they didn’t listen at all. They just told me it was a phase I was going through.”

Some of the survey participants said their GP did not take eating disorders seriously and treated as a “phase or a diet gone wrong”.

Beat said people affected by eating disorders needed support, provided without delay and if GPs were not sufficiently informed about available treatment, then their patients’ recovery could be endangered with fatal consequences.

Some of the patients’ experiences were positive as one person said: “My GP referred me straight away to the nearest mental health unit. The help I got was immeasurable.”

A Beat spokesperson said: “Right now, too few people receive the quality of service that should be theirs by right – rather than by luck or chance. It is only by ending this information lottery that everyone will have the best chance of beating their eating disorder.”

The RCGP’s chairman Professor Steve Field said that doctors were aware of the signs of eating disorders and, on the whole, were doing an excellent job.

“One problem is that the group of patients we are dealing with - including bulimics who look as if they are eating normally - frequently present to GPs on a number of occasions before they open up about their problems.

“It often takes a while for there to be understanding of the problem, it's not very often that the patient comes to the GP and says 'I've got an eating disorder'. But doctors do know what they are doing and the signs to look out for and patients should be reassured of this.”

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