The Independent

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.”

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