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GPs need a screening tool for eating disorders, Parliament told


By Jess Hacker
20 April 2021

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GPs and other frontline staff need a screening tool to effectively identify eating disorders and offer appropriate early intervention, a campaigner has told Parliament.

Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee today (20 April), Hope Virgo, founder of the #DumpTheScales campaign, said that providing GPs with a screening tool similar to those in place to identify patients at risk of suicide could help improve access to treatment.

The Committee is currently taking evidence on the case for prioritising early intervention and prevention approaches to improve young people’s mental health.

Ms Virgo, who has herself recovered from an eating disorder, said that when a patient presents with an eating disorder they are often judged by what they ‘look like physically’, adding that GPs need to know to ask ‘the right questions’.

She said: ‘With all GPs and with all frontline staff there should be some kind of screening tool put in place with eating disorders.

‘I know in some parts of the country, we do that with suicide, but actually with eating disorders, we don’t do that at all.’

Questions asked of patients could also include ‘how are you feeling about your body?’, ‘are you constantly thinking about food?’ or ‘are you exercising to lose weight?’, Ms Virgo suggested.

‘I think questions [like that] would have helped me to open up a little bit and to also probably question what was actually going on in my head,’ she added.

Scrap BMI in diagnosis or risk pushing back patients

Ms Virgo also welcomed recent calls to scrap the use of Body mass Index (BMI) – a recommendation made by the Women and Equalities Committee last week.

She said that the use of BMI to diagnose an eating disorder can risk excluding patients from the support they need. 

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report said that although BMI was initially introduced to measure characteristics of entire populations, it has become increasingly used as a health risk indicator.

It also warned that lockdown restrictions  have had a ‘devastating’ impact on those with or at high risk of developing an eating disorder.

Although Ms Virgo welcomed the recommendation, she also said she feared that the BMI criteria could be replaced with another measurement, such as ‘measuring someone’s waist’.

Lack of funding

Meanwhile, Cassandra Harrison, chief executive officer at Youth Access – the national membership organisation for youth information, advice and counselling services (YIACS) – told the hearing that a lack of funding was hampering members’ efforts to support young people.

‘We know that the support our members provide to young people is vitally important, it’s really effective, they’re filling gaps in the system. But it shouldn’t have to be such a battle to keep these vital services running,’ she said.

Members are having to ‘patch together’ funding streams that are often ‘very limited and very short term’, she added, leaving them unable to plan services and meet people’s needs.

‘The services that young people can access really depends on where they live, depending on what’s been commissioned and what’s being funded,’ Ms Harrison said.  

She also said that ‘with the right kind of backing and funding and support’, these services can play a greater role in moving young people’s mental health provision ‘away from crisis to earlier prevention’.

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