A GP was “reading definitions from Google” on eating disorders to diagnose a patient, according to a survey which reveals the majority of such patients feel doctors do not know how to help them.
The proportion has also increased over the last four years, with more than two thirds (69 per cent) of patients surveyed feeling that their GP did not know how to help them, up from 66 per cent in 2017.
All doctors should undergo comprehensive training on how to spot eating disorders and refer patients correctly, according to Beat, the charity which carried out the research.
There is no requirement to provide medical students with any eating disorder training, the charity said, with the average student receiving less than two hours throughout their degree.
Beat is calling on every medical school to provide comprehensive training to give GPs the necessary knowledge to help patients presenting with eating disorders.
Around 1.25 million people in the UK have some form of mental illness related to eating in the UK, according to the charity.
One case study in the survey, a patient identified only as Alex, said: “My GP encouraged me to eat more but didn’t understand the barriers to doing this… I feel more needs to be understood about the anxiety and feelings around eating.”
Aisha, another survey respondent, said her GP “was just reading definitions from Google”.
“I felt I had the same knowledge as them, except they were the only ones able to refer me for help,” she said.
Almost all of the survey respondents (92 per cent) felt their GP needed more training.
Two thirds (67 per cent) said opportunities for early intervention and identification of their condition were missed by their GP.
And more than half (52 per cent) said they would have sought help if they had greater confidence that doctors could support them.
More than 1,600 people with experience of an eating disorder, aged 13 to 79, responded to the survey.
It comes as a record number of children have been referred for specialist care for the most serious mental health problems during the pandemic.
Between April 2021 and October 2021, the number of children aged under 18 needing care for issues ranging from self-half to eating disorders had increased by 77 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.
‘Essential’ that medical students receive training on eating disorders
Andrew Radford, the chief executive of Beat, said: “It is essential that all medical students receive training on eating disorders. Quality education about eating disorders during medical school will help our future doctors to increase their understanding of these complex illnesses, identify the early signs and symptoms, and signpost people to treatment.
“Healthcare staff work tirelessly to provide the best care for their patients, but through no fault of their own they often do not have the training that they need.”
He added it was “essential that every person with an eating disorder feels confident that they will be supported by their GP”.
Dr Gary Howsam, the vice chair of the Royal College of GPs, disputed the charity’s claim that GPs have “little or no training” to identify eating disorders.
“On completion of medical school, and after two further years of post-graduate ‘foundation years’ training, GP trainees then undertake a three-year specialty training in order to practice independently as a GP in the UK,” he said.
Part of that training includes a focus on mental health including eating disorders, he said.
“It is nevertheless distressing to see so many patients with eating disorders report having a poor experience of healthcare.”
The RCGPs has called for GP appointments to be at least 15 minutes as the current 10 minute standard is “inadequate”.
“But offering longer appointments means offering fewer and patients already report having to wait too long to access GP care,” he said.