Hidden epidemic of eating disorders because of COVID-19, new research finds

Press release
01 March 2021

Referrals to eating disorder inpatient settings and emergency admissions to acute hospitals have increased by a fifth and waiting times have doubled since the pandemic in a Provider Collaborative in the south of England, according to new research.

The paper analyses data from HOPE Provider Collaborative which includes Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Berkshire Healthcare NHS FT, Gloucestershire Health and Care NHS FT and the Priory Group’s inpatient provision in Bristol.

It found that the average number of referrals increased by 20% from March 2020 to November 2020 when compared with data from July 2018 to February 2020. Waiting times for potentially life-saving treatment more than doubled from 33 days to 67 days.

The average distance from home to treatment also increased from 42 miles to 62 miles during the pandemic, with seven patients sent to Glasgow as no beds were available in England.

The authors warn that these figures are likely to get worse over time and are likely to be replicated across the country.

Dr Agnes Ayton, lead author and chairwoman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, said:

“Eating disorder services are at risk of being overrun by the surging numbers of people needing help because of Covid-19.
“Support networks have been dismantled and the reduced access to community services means many people are suffering in silence, unable to get the help they desperately need.
“The government must urgently address the hidden epidemic of eating disorders sweeping across the country by improving access to treatment and increasing funding for both community and inpatient services.
“We know early intervention saves lives, so all frontline healthcare professionals need to be trained in identifying eating disorders.
“NHS England must work to deliver waiting time targets for adults otherwise the cruel postcode lottery in their treatment will continue despite the commitments made in the Long-term Plan.”

The findings come as recently published NHS data on eating disorders shows a fourfold increase in the number of children and young people waiting for urgent care and a 129% increase in the number waiting for routine treatment over the past year.

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