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GPs come under fire for ‘not referring enough’ patients to eating disorder specialists

Three in ten people with an eating disorder say they were not referred by their GP to specialist services, a survey has found.

Charity Beat said GPs need more training to pick up the symptoms of eating disorders so they refer people promptly for help.

But the RCGP said this was ‘simply not true’, with GPs not provided with enough time or resources to assess patients properly for eating disorders, or enough services to refer them to.

The survey of over 1,200 people, by charity Beat, also found only one in five were given information about eating disorders by their GP. Over half – 55% – said they felt their GP did not understand the importance of early intervention, while two-thirds felt their GP did not know how to help them.

Half of respondents rated the care they received from their GPs as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, with the over half rating it ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Beat chief executive Andrew Radford said: ‘It takes great courage for sufferers of eating disorders to come forward and often the first person they talk to is their GP. Unfortunately many of our respondents identified poor care from their doctor with many GPs not knowing what the real signs and symptoms are.’

Mr Radford added that ‘this isn’t about blaming GPs’ but called for ‘increased eating disorder training for medical students specialising in general practice’.

A GP who trains others on eating disorders, put forward by the charity, said that ‘GPs in my experience are dedicated in supporting their eating disordered patients’ but that ‘an opportunity for training at the beginning of their careers would be beneficial’.

But RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said it was ‘simply not true that GPs are not trained to identify and treat patients with eating disorders’.

Professor Stokes-Lampard added that some patients ‘for a number of reasons, might not want a referral and in these cases the GP will respect their wishes’ so the survey findings were ‘actually more indicative of GPs’ understanding of and sensitivity towards patient choice, and the elephant in the room – a severe lack of appropriate services in the community for GPs to refer patients to’.

She said: ‘Ultimately what is necessary is for substantially more investment in general practice and more GPs so we can offer longer consultations to those patients who really need them – and a greater quantity and variety of mental health services in the community’.

NICE recently set out draft recommendations on eating disorders including advice that GPs should refer patients ‘without delay’ if needed, and not wait for symptoms to progress — which experts said should help to resist situations where stretched eating disorder clinics have ended up forcing patients to lose enough weight to be seen.

But the NICE advice came just after it was revealed that patients in England being referred to Scotland because of the lack of services, highlighting the difficulties GPs can face when trying to get patients seen by a specialist. 

And last year, LMC leaders in Wales warned that GPs were being forced into managing patients with eating disorders ‘outside their competency’ because of pressure on services.

Pulse also recently revealed that two-thirds of children and young people referred for specialist mental health care were ending up being discharged without any treatment.



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