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Why Some Doctors Don’t Understand Eating Disorders

Why Some Doctors Don’t Understand Eating DisordersWondering Why Some Doctors Don’t Understand Eating Disorders?

Would your family doctor recognize the symptoms of an eating disorder? Studies show that primary care doctors are usually the professionals most women, men, adolescents, and teens turn to first when they think they might have an eating disorder. But nearly 80 percent of the health care providers surveyed by the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness admitted that don’t feel they are adequately informed to identify and diagnose eating disorders. Could this lack of knowledge be one of the reasons that people with eating disorders have the highest death rates among mental health disorders?

What to Ask Your Doctor

It’s common to see ads on TVs that promote new pharmaceuticals. For all of the millions these companies spend on advertising, many of them depend on a few simple words to ultimately make a sale: “Ask your doctor if (the product) is right for you.” Until physicians are properly educated, the same words may not apply to advice about treating eating disorders, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. Rather than ask about drugs for common ailments, patients should find out if their doctors have any experience treating eating disorders, the survey suggests. According to the study, there is a shortage of shared information. Johanna Kandel, founder and CEO of the Alliance, told Glamour magazine, “It’s a crisis.”

What Doctors May Not Know

The alliance’s undercover study confirms Kandel’s opinion. When people in treatment for eating disorders were sent to physicians, and told to relay obvious ED symptoms (without revealing their clinical diagnosis), many doctors missed the signs. One woman confessed that her issues with food were so out of control that her weight fluctuated wildly, and that she had recently fainted while exercising. “I also told him straight out that sometimes I didn’t eat all day, then binged at night.” She hinted to the doctor that she purged as well. The physician dismissed this behavior, saying, “Just eat three meals a day.”

Another volunteer, a young college student with a history of anorexia, reported a similar response after describing the classic symptoms for her eating disorder. Only one doctor in the study acknowledged the signs of an ED. The first woman insists that she correctly listed all of her textbook symptoms, and tried to describe her food issues. “But it didn’t seem to matter,” she said. “I left the appointment feeling disappointed, angry, and embarrassed.”

While some ED patients continue to face a lack of general knowledge about these disorders, their numbers are continuing to grow. Consider these statistics:

  • Forty percent of Americans have either suffered from an eating disorder or know someone who has.
  • The most rapidly growing group of individuals with eating disorders are women in midlife.
  • Men comprise 25 percent of eating-disorder patients.
  • Children aren’t immune either: Kids under the age of 10 make up 10 percent of eating-disorder cases.

The Symptons

Experts say these types of experiences with healthcare providers are not uncommon. Many doctors receive little to no training in treating or diagnosing eating disorders during medical school. Despite the fact that several major health conditions can be linked to a person’s diet, most American physicians don’t get very much schooling in nutrition either. Medical schools are notoriously difficult, and there is only so much someone can learn in a limited time. “Doctors fundamentally want to help people,” says Melina Jampolis, MD, an internist in Los Angeles. “But if you haven’t been taught about eating disorders, you don’t know what to look for, and you won’t see it.”

The Aches and Pains

In the U.S. healthcare system, busy physicians often don’t have the time to investigate deep psychological issues or examine the signs for behavior disorders. Diagnosing mental health disorders properly can require several hours of conversation or counseling and this often isn’t an option for hard-working doctors. Some might argue that this isn’t really their job. One family doctor calls his profession “results-based medicine.” By the time he sees his patients, he explains, they are often quite ill, but they expect an immediate fix for a flu or physical ailment, in a few minutes.

The Cure

Kandel points out that having an understanding doctor can make a huge difference. “Women with eating disorders have also told me that it’s because of a well-informed general practitioner that they’re alive today.” One young woman in the survey said she owed her life to her doctor. “My family practitioner noted my low weight, stomachaches, and irregular heartbeat, and diagnosed me with anorexia and a heart condition caused by it.” After referring the woman to an eating disorder clinic, her doctor continued to a source of support in her recovery. “I feel so blessed to have found her,” she says. “She wouldn’t give up on me and wouldn’t let me give up.”

The Prescription?

More information, and more informed doctors, is the answer, according to the experts. Doctors need to recognize the symptoms of eating disorders, says Wanda Filer, M.D., a family physician based in Pennsylvania, “In family medicine we care for a lot of young women,” Dr. Filer told Glamour magazine. “And usually we have a series of things in our mind like Pap smears, dating violence, substance abuse. Eating disorders need to be on that list.” A paper published by the American Academy of Family Physicians also supports this idea. When patients complain of dizziness, weight loss or gain, bloating, and insomnia, healthcare providers should investigate the possibility of anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder, the paper insists.

Research and Recovery

Despite hectic schedules, many general practitioners find time to read the latest journals, articles, and papers to stay current on recent developments. We also need more general research to boost general awareness about eating disorders in the medical community, these doctors say. Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health, agrees. He says, “Research is our best hope for effective prevention and even better treatments in the future.”

What You Can Do

If you are a patient, it pays to be proactive, Kandel’s study suggests. Fortunately, most people have far more choices now for effectively treating eating disorders and other challenging mental health problems. The Alliance’s survey recommends that patients seek out healthcare professionals that have experience dealing with their issues.

Center For Discovery Can Help

At Center For Discovery, we know that health comes in all sizes. Our comprehensive treatment programs have been helping clients and their families find a way to recovery for more than 18 years. Our highly trained teams of experts provide personalized multi-faceted behavior modification programs and teach successful coping skills for all types of eating disorders.

Call Us Now!

If you or someone you love are struggling with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to call Center For Discovery immediately at 800.760.3934. The symptoms of eating disorders can pose life threatening health risks. Call now and speak to one of our admission specialists today. Or fill out this form for a FREE assessment. All calls are completely FREE and strictly confidential.



Glamour: Could You Spot Someone With an Eating Disorder? by Sunny Sea Gold

PalmBeachPost.com: For those struggling with eating disorders, Johanna Kandel offers hope and her own story

The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness: Debunking ED myths

Chicago Tribune: Male anorexia often goes undiagnosed, untreated, by Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy

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