New data shows a steep rise in the number of children waiting to receive care for eating disorders, some of which are “serious and potentially life threatening.” This comes after the children’s commissioner warned that many are not given timely access to care.
Eating disorders: definitions and targets
An eating disorder is defined by abnormal eating behaviours that negatively affect a person’s mental & physical health. According to the charity Beat “around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder,” a considerable proportion of people in the UK. In recent years, there has been a particularly substantial increase in eating disorders being treated among children up from 5240 in 2016-17 to around 11,800 in 2022-23, many of whom are not being treated in time under NHS targets.
The NHS has targets for 95% of children and young people with eating disorders to begin their treatment within 1 week, if an urgent case. However, data has shown that around 45% of children have to wait more than 12 weeks to being treatment, a grave failure of targets set by the NHS. This leads many to wonder how the NHS will be able to improve these statistics, as the Children’s commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said “It is worrying that children and young people are facing increasingly long waits for treatment for eating disorders. Young people deserve timely access to effective care.”
Responses to this challenge
The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the level of unmet need was a concern, a high level of care is essential for this problem. “The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many children and young people coming forward later with more complex symptoms which are often harder, and take longer, to treat”.
“We need significant, long-term investment in and support for prevention and early intervention services to help children and young people sooner and to tackle the pressure of growing demand on the NHS, as well as more beds and safe, therapeutic environments to provide care for those who need it.” Saffron points to greater investment to help deal with these new challenges to the NHS brought upon by the disruption to normal life for children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re boosting capacity at children and young people’s community eating disorder services across the country – allowing them to treat nearly 50% more young people in 2022-23 than 2019-20. “We’re also investing an additional £2.3bn a year in NHS mental health services by March 2024, so more adults, children and young people in England get vital support quicker.”
Greater investment will help clear the backlog of patients waiting to be treated, however Dame Rachel de Souza the Children’s Commissioner for England said: “The government must also focus on tackling some of the potential drivers of disordered eating.” She therefore highlights the need for other solutions from the government, not just investment, such as protection from harmful online content that could fuel an eating disorder. These longer-term solutions would help to stem the increasing flow of children needing treatment.
£2.3 billion is a large investment, so many families would welcome the statement from the Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson. However the number of children developing eating disorders is on the rise, so questions must be asked about future commitments to this issue.
Pressures on the NHS are far from new, but the government needs to produce stronger long-term responses to the crisis by using mitigation strategies as well as investment to help solve the backlog of children needing to be treated.
Curia’s NHS and Life Sciences Commission
Following the successful launch of the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission’s 2022 Report, the Commission will appraise the outlined recommendations in 2023. This will allow a measurement of success to be taken on each implementation and a review of new priorities for the NHS and life sciences industry. The Commission will continue to review case studies to highlight best practice for the 2022 recommendations. Through a series of sprints, the Commission will highlight real-world experiences in regions across the UK. Through targeted health data mapping, relevant areas of unmet need and health inequalities can be chosen. Each sprint may appraise one or multiple topic areas from the 2022 report.
The Commission will also hold dedicated inquiry sessions into specific system-level and therapeutic areas of focus. Using the same methodology, the inquiries will provide opportunities for the Commission to gain implementable solutions to these areas and develop similar policy recommendations and reports.
The Commission will continue periodic consultation with selected advisory group bodies and sponsors to steer the methodology and direction of the 2023 activities.