Long NHS delays can be 'devastating' for patients with eating disorders

Charity helping people suffering from anorexia and bulimia reveals people waiting up to five years to start treatment

People with an eating disorder are waiting as long as five years to start treatment on the NHS, putting their recovery in peril, according to a report.

Beat, a charity which helps people suffering from anorexia and bulimia, warns that delays to access vital care can have a “devastating” impact on those with eating disorders.

It stresses that while the five-year wait was a one-off, too many patients are waiting too long to see a specialist, despite recent efforts by the NHS to provide more services and cut waiting times.

Patients wait on average six months after first visiting their GP about their condition before they start treatment, it said. Some have been made to wait as long as that – 26 weeks – just to have the appointment at which they are assessed, after being referred for help by their GP.

And it can then take as much as 13 weeks after the assessment appointment before they see a psychiatrist who specialises in treating eating disorders, Beat said.

Its findings are based on the experiences of 1,478 patients who responded to a survey the charity undertook.

“The impact of having to wait a long time before receiving treatment can be devastating for eating disorders sufferers and their families,” said Andrew Radford, Beat’s chief executive.

“Eating disorders are serious, complex mental illnesses and early intervention is key to recovery. All evidence tells us the sooner someone with an eating disorder gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and sustained recovery,” he added.

Around 725,000 people in the UK are estimated to have an eating disorder, and the conditions cost the NHS about £4.6bn a year to treat. Almost 90% of sufferers are young girls or women.

It takes on average three and a half years between symptoms emerging and the sufferer starting treatment, with the gap among adults seeking help double that found in children. People typically take over 18 months to realise they have a problem and then more than a year before they seek help, Beat found.

Under NHS England waiting times targets for eating disorders, under-18s who are classed as an emeregncy should receive treatment within 24 hours, urgent cases should be seen inside a week and non-urgent cases within four weeks.

Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for mental health, said that official waiting times performance figures showed that many young patients were still not receiving timely care.

Between July and September, 29% of urgent cases did not start treatment within a week and 17.6% of patients did not begin routine treatment within four weeks.

“This [Beat] report suggests that Tory ministers need to snap out of their complacent attitude to the treatment of eating disorders. It is yet more proof that warm words from the Tories haven’t been met with firm action to improve services in the community,” Keeley said.

Research by Labour found that a few NHS mental health trusts have reported worryingly long waits for children and young people with eating disorders.

Tees, Esk and Wear Trust reported eight urgent cases who had waited over four weeks, five of whom waited over 12 weeks, and 44 routine cases who had waited longer than 12 weeks.

Avon and Wiltshire Trust had five urgent cases waiting four to 12 weeks and 13 routine cases in which those involved had waited over 12 weeks.

Dr Marc Bush, YoungMinds chief policy adviser, said: “Sadly, these figures chime with what we hear on our helpline, from worried parents who are desperately trying to get support from child and adolescent mental health services.”

Bush added: “Parents of children with eating disorders say that their children have been turned away because their weight isn’t low enough, or that they’re put on long waiting lists, during which time the situation can get worse.

“While services are improving in some areas, these figures suggest that too often NHS targets for the treatment are not being met. It’s also clear that there is still a huge amount of work to do to help young people recognise when they may be developing an eating disorder and seek help earlier on.”

An NHS England spokesperson said: “There are now 70 NHS community eating disorder services for children and young people covering the whole of England, backed £150m of investment. As a result, eight in ten young people now get care within four weeks, and three-quarters receive urgent treatment in a week, so progress is clearly being made.”


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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