June 18, 2024

Vita Nectar

Health is the main investment in life

Eating Disorders Are Rising in U.K. Children. So Are Waits For Care

3 min read

The number of children and young people starting treatment for eating disorders has more than doubled in England over the last six years.

But services are struggling to keep pace with growing demand and waits for care are on the rise, according to a report by the country’s Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza.

Conditions like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating can be devastating to young people and their families, affecting relationships and causing serious physical problems linked to malnutrition.

Often presenting with other conditions like depression and anxiety, these complex illnesses may require specialist care to treat.

Eating disorders can ultimately kill, with anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition, the report notes. But with the right care, many patients are able to recover.

So it’s a huge concern to health professionals that some young people are waiting a long time for care.

Data from England’s public health provider, the National Health Service, shows a growing demand for treatment:

  • The number of hospital admissions for eating disorders from any age group has nearly doubled overall since the 2015/16 financial year, when 13,200 admissions took place.
  • By 2020/21, that figure had grown to 24,300, with the bulk of these (11,700) among people under 25 years old.
  • The number of children and young people starting treatment for eating disorders has more than doubled since 2016/17, when 5,240 began care.
  • In 2021/22, 12,460 children and yound people began care. Last year, that fell slightly to 11,810, but this is likely to be an underestimate affected by a cyber security incident.

Data also show many children and young people in need are waiting longer than they should for care:

  • The proportion of referrals being seen “on time” — within a week for urgent cases, and within four for non-urgent cases — fell during the pandemic and is way off from a target of 95%.
  • The latest available results show 78% of urgent cases were seen within one week, and 81% of non-urgent cases within four, in the third quarter of 2022/23.
  • Concerningly, 45% of urgent cases and 34% of non-urgent cases waited more than 12 weeks for treatment in the last quarter of 2022/23.

The report called for government to improve access to the evidence-based, high-quality care provided by the health service. This treatment, it said, “can improve recovery rates, lead to fewer relapses and reduce the need for inpatient admissions.”

Helping to prevent the online spread of eating disorder content and providing support for young people with body image issues should also be a focus for leaders, the report said.

Director of external affairs for eating disorder charity Beat, Tom Quinn, said the figures should “set alarm bells ringing” for government and health leaders.

“It’s completely unacceptable that children and young people are waiting so long for treatment, even in urgent cases as the risk of a longer or more complicated recovery increases with every day that passes,” he added.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of public hospital industry body NHS Providers said “it was a real worry” that so many children and teenagers were waiting for treatment for eating disorders.”

“With more than 1.8 million people on the waiting list for overstretched and understaffed mental health services, trusts are deeply concerned about levels of unmet need,” she added in a statement.

Quinn said clinical staff were doing everything they could to help as many children as possible, but accused the government of failing to give services the support they need.

“Allocating more funding isn’t enough — ensuring that it is ring-fenced and reaches frontline services must be a priority,” he said. ‘We also know that eating disorder services are struggling to recruit clinical staff.”

Cordery said that the pandemic meant many children and young people sought care later than usual, resulting in “more complex symptoms which are often harder, and take longer, to treat.” She called for sustained, long-term investment in services that would help prevent eating disorders and speed up intervention.

As demand for healthcare grows, the public health service needs “more beds and safe, therapeutic environments to provide care for those who need it.”

This story has been updated with comments from Beat, an eating disorder charity

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