GPs 'failing to help people with eating disorders'

GPs are failing to help people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, a charity said today.

A new report from the charity Beat found that only 15 per cent of sufferers felt their GP understood their disorder or knew how to help them.

Many thought their GP was not up-to-date on eating disorders and some believed he or she did not take them seriously.

Some GPs told patients they were "going through a phase" or had embarked on a diet "gone wrong".

The report comes after figures released last week showed a rise in the number of young girls admitted to hospital with anorexia.

Over the last decade, the number of admissions among girls aged 16 and under in England jumped 80 per cent, from 256 in 1996/97 to 462 in 2006/07.

Beat chief executive Susan Ringwood said the rise could be down to a "wait and see" attitude in primary care, with young girls only being admitted when they were seriously ill.

Today's report, based on a survey of 1,500 people with eating disorders, found that many sufferers did not think their GP was knowledgeable about treatments or how to access them.

The report said a patient's recovery was not about choice - a current NHS buzz word - but was entirely down to chance, "with the odds stacked against them".

One patient told the charity: "I felt as if my weight had to drop before the GP would take my worries seriously" while another said: "When I first went to see my GP they didn't listen at all. They just told me it was a phase I was going through."

Another sufferer said: "I left the doctors feeling disheartened, patronised and as if I was making a big fuss about nothing."

Guidelines for the NHS from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) were an excellent tool for GPs but implementation varied across the country, the charity said.

The guidelines set out how recovery is possible, provided GPs listen to their patients, act quickly and, in the case of young people, involve their families as much as possible.

Eating disorders are estimated to affect more than 1.1 million people in the UK.

Launching the report, Ms Ringwood congratulated Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who acknowledged last week that late diagnosis of eating disorders was an issue.

"Gordon Brown has just become the first Prime Minister to acknowledge the problem of eating disorders," she said.

"The Prime Minister admitted that treatment for eating disorders is not always good enough.

"He indicated this is something that the Government would work to change.

"However - despite these positive signs - we are aware that people affected by eating disorders still aren't getting the treatment and support they need.

"Only 15 per cent of the people we surveyed felt their GP understood eating disorders and knew how to help.

"This is a shocking statistic: it means that the majority of people encounter uninformed GPs - a huge obstacle to their recovery."

Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors were aware of the signs of eating disorders.

He said: "One problem is that the group of patients we are dealing with - including bulimics who look as if they are eating normally - frequently present to GPs on a number of occasions before they open up about their problems.

"Eating disorders don't respect age or sex or social background; boys as well as girls are affected, old people as well as young people.

"Often they are associated with psychological traumas such as a death in the family or bullying at school.

"It often takes a while for there to be understanding of the problem, it's not very often that the patient comes to the GP and says 'I've got an eating disorder'.

"But doctors do know what they are doing and the signs to look out for and patients should be reassured of this."

Prof Field said specialist services, where patients can be referred, do need to improve, adding that the quality was "patchy" across the country.

He said the Nice guidance recommended patients were managed outside of hospital settings.

The rise in the number of admissions to hospital could represent a success for the NHS, perhaps because more services were available or more people are being referred, he added.