Age discrimination leading to avoidable eating disorder deaths, government warned
The government must end “age discrimination” against eating disorder patients that is causing avoidable deaths, experts have warned.
A cross-party parliamentary group and the Royal College of Psychiatrists are calling for access targets to make sure adults with eating disorders get treated within a set time. The demands come after the healthcare watchdog said patients were dying while waiting to be seen. Wera Hobhouse, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, and Agnes Ayton, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorder committee, said the targets must be equal to those for children, which were set in 2016.
Their calls come after The Independent revealed thousands of adults were waiting more than three months for treatment from referral. During eating disorders awareness week this week, the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman published a report warning that patients were dying due to the lack of equality between child and adult services.
The watchdog’s latest report was prompted by the death of a 35year-old college teacher from an eating disorder. In the report, it said little progress had been made since its 2017 warning and
that “people with eating disorders are being repeatedly failed by the system”. According to the Health Service Journal, 19 patients under the care of inpatient and community eating disorder services have died since 2017.
A senior coroner in Norfolk also highlighted failings in 2019 and sent a warning to both NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care, over the deaths of five young women. There is currently no target for the NHS for access to adult eating disorder services. That is despite a target for 95 per cent of urgent child referrals to be seen within a week and a fourweek target for routine referrals. However, the NHS is struggling to meet that target, with 77 per cent of urgent child referrals seen within a week and 80 per cent of routine referrals seen within four.
Dr Agnes Ayton and Wera Hobhouse said any new targets would need to be achievable. Dr Ayton told The Independent: “We need the same target across age range. At the moment, what we’re seeing is age discrimination. In some ways [this is] also unprecedented because I can’t think of any other physical or mental disorder when there’s this sort of massive discrepancy. We don’t want to dilute or reduce success, access to care. We want to ensure that there isn’t that age discrimination when somebody needs their ratings first day or 25th birthday.” She said “age discrimination” was leading to patients having to turn to private sector options and warned “the disparity continues to cost lives”.
A key recommendation in the PHSO’s 2017 report was to improve and standardise education of eating disorders for medical students. However, Dr Ayton said she was concerned there had been “resistance” to this across medical training. Data previously obtained by The Independent showed more than 8,000 adults were waiting to be seen for therapy in July 2022– the highest figure recorded since data collection began in 2019.
Ms Wera Hobhouse told The Independent: “[At least] 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK and that is probably only the ones that we know about. We also know that it takes sometimes a long time before people actually recognise
that they’ve got an eating disorder and they need to seek help. So this is really the tip of the iceberg… It’s astounding how long it takes for a government and politicians to wake up. We’ve been raising this issue in Parliament. Ever since I can remember I entered parliament in 2017. They have a waiting time, proper waiting time limits, for young people under 18 but we do still have no waiting times for adult services.”
Ms Hobhouse also criticised the government’s national policy on obesity, which has recommended the requirement for calories to be put on food menus, which she could be “harmful” for those suffering from an eating disorder.
She said the NHS “absolutely” needs targets for adults and that there would “absolutely” be more avoidable deaths if the gaps were not addressed. An NHS spokesperson said 55 per cent more young people were being treated for eating disorders compared to pre-pandemic levels and was rolling out early intervention eating disorder services for those aged 16-25.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are committed to improving eating disorder and mental health services, which is why we are investing almost £1bn in community mental health care for adults with severe mental illness, including eating disorders, by 2024. We are taking steps to expand the number of practitioners who can deliver evidence-based psychological interventions that are intended to treat those with an eating disorder.”
Want your views to be included in The Independent Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your address