Children and teens with eating disorders being ‘let down by NHS’

Author: Caroline White

The waiting time for specialist treatment for children and young people with eating disorders in England is too long and below the specified targets, indicate the latest provisional figures* published by NHS England.

The figures for quarter 3 of 2019-20 for children and teens up to the age of 19 indicate that hundreds were still waiting for their treatment to start at the end of the quarter, including some classified as urgent cases. 

The NHS target stipulates that by 2020, 95% of urgent cases should start treatment within one week of referral, a figure that currently stands at 73.5% (277 out of 377), the figures show.

Routine treatment should also start within four weeks for 95% of cases, but the current figures show that this target was achieved in just under 87% (1574 out of 1812) of cases.

Some 22 patients were still waiting for urgent treatment at the end of the quarter; 13 had been waiting for more than a week.

Analysis of the statistics by the UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT), a group of private clinics, indicates that the number of routine cases still waiting for treatment has risen by 20% since the previous quarter’s figures were published.

The number of those waiting for routine treatment was 532. Of these, 173 had been waiting for more than four weeks: one in four (134) have been waiting for between four and 12 weeks, with a further 39 still waiting for treatment to start after 12 weeks. 

Of the 22 children classed as requiring urgent treatment, three had been waiting between 4-12 weeks, with two waiting 12 weeks since their referral. 

A regional break-down of the figures reveals that most urgent cases (nine of 22) still waiting for treatment lived in the North East and Yorkshire, while routine cases (126) lived in the South East, the South West (113), and the North East and Yorkshire regions (102). 

Dimitra Theofili, UKAT eating disorder practitioner, commented: “The fact that there are 22 children requiring urgent treatment for their eating disorder condition and are still waiting for their treatment is appalling, quite frankly they are being let down by the NHS. This is a progressive illness, meaning it gets worse with time.”

She added: “A child who asks for help for their eating disorder has taken the first and most important step in their road to recovery and for them to be ignored for months is just not good enough. Time is of the essence when it comes to treating eating disorders, especially in young people.”

Across the UKAT group, admissions for eating disorders have risen by over 200% since 2016, and in 2019, 8% of all admissions were for eating disorders. 

So far this year, UKAT’s admissions team had received more than five enquiries for eating disorder treatment every day, she said. 

She blamed social media for the increases: “Social media creates unrealistic expectations about body and shape. This is more evident and impactful in adolescents and young adults.

“Instagram and Snapchat seem to be the chosen platforms because of the ability to alter the way their face looks with the use of filters, some which are actually named perfect face. They’re quite literally suggesting that the user's face is not perfect; how is this meant to make a 13-year-old feel about themselves?”

Eating disorders also affected boys, she added. But they were less likely to ask for help. UKAT’s experience was that bingeing was the most common form of eating disorder among boys.

*NHS Children and Young People with an Eating Disorder Waiting Times. NHS Enlgand, 13 February 2020