Children and young people with eating disorders face treatment postcode lottery

Press release
02 March 2023

Eating disorder services in England have been flooded with referrals for children and young people over the past three years, with 51% more patients overall, both routine and urgent, requiring specialist services.

Yet, across England every single region is failing to meet the Government’s target for 95% of urgent and routine patients to be seen within one and four weeks respectively, after referral. For children and young people, this means that where you live could determine how quickly you’re seen. The number of children and young people receiving urgent and routine care has gone up by 66% and 48% in turn since 2019.

In this postcode lottery, they are being forced to contend with long waits and risk becoming severely ill before starting treatment. Over time this costs the NHS more with detrimental outcomes for patients.

In the capital, children and young people face the predicament of having the shortest waiting time in the country for urgent referrals, but the longest waiting time in England for routine referrals. Despite this, the College’s analysis reveals that London is cutting money for services by 2.6% (£300k).

In 2020 the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned of an all-time high for children and young people seeking treatment for eating disorders, three years on we are facing an eating disorders crisis.

Workforce shortages continue to undermine service capacity. At present, psychiatrists report high workloads and poor work-life balance, making older consultants more likely to retire early due to work-related stress.

To mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the Government to provide adequate investment into the recruitment and retention of the psychiatric workforce, as part of the forthcoming NHS Workforce Plan.

This should include:

  • An increase in medical school places to 15,000 by 2028/29, with priority for shortage specialties.
  • Support for NHS trusts to meet an annual 4% improvement target in retaining mental health staff.

Dr Agnes Ayton, Chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“It’s simply not acceptable that waiting times have increased when we are seeing record levels of referrals for children and young people. This is a warning that we gave three years ago and it beggars belief that nothing has changed.

“Admissions have been sharply rising since even before the pandemic, under 19’s now account for 30% of hospital stays for eating disorders, with no sign of abating.

“We know that delays cause patients to become even more unwell, with potentially life-threatening consequences. Overstretched services are already struggling to meet demand, so how can we continue to subject these children and young people to a postcode lottery?

“If the Government is serious about dealing with this ongoing crisis, they must produce adequate funding for the impending NHS Workforce Plan. Specialist services should be supported with the same level of focus given to elective care.”

According to the College, since 2017, there has been a 30% increase in vacant or unfilled consultant posts in England, with child and adolescent psychiatry, as well as eating disorders psychiatry showing the highest number of vacancies.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has published guidance on Medical Emergencies and Eating Disorders for frontline staff so that people with eating disorders needing urgent care can be identified and treated earlier. 

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