“If you have a child with cancer, you wouldn’t wait until they had reached stage four cancer before starting treatment. It’s no different with an eating disorder, because if you delay treatment, then the illness becomes more ingrained and more difficult to treat.”
Ulrike Schmidt, professor of eating disorders at King’s College London (KCL), is explaining why she and a team of medical personnel have begun helping young adults suffering from anorexia and bulimia to start specialist treatment within weeks rather than the months of delay that are so common across the NHS. The first episode and rapid early intervention for eating disorders (Freed) trial has only been going for nine months but has so far given patients – mainly young women – access to vital treatment in an average of 33 days rather than the usual time of between four and eight months.
Its initial results show that cutting long waiting times makes patients much more likely to engage with the treatment; reduces the high dropout rate from such care; helps patients recover more quickly than normal; and is hugely appreciated by patients and their parents. Although only 45 patients have so far benefitted from this innovative approach at the South London and Maudsley (Slam) NHS foundation trust, it has the potential to help end what Schmidt calls intolerable waits for urgent treatment.
“We have transformed the care and lives of these young people. We can already see that this is really making a difference,” said Schmidt. “People’s recovery is brought forward so much, patients actually engage in treatment – it’s unusual to find eating disorders sufferers who take part in treatment as willingly – and parents are utterly delighted. Eating disorders are such a burden on families, in which every meal is a battle and you worry that your child might drop dead because of the sudden death associated with anorexia, that parents are very glad to have such expert help so early and to be so involved.”
In most eating disorder services, up to 40% of patients drop out for complex psychological reasons, and the risk of that happening is higher the longer they have to wait to start. Dropout used to be 30% from Slam’s eating disorders service; it is down to 13% among Freed patients.
Prof Ulrike Schmidt
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