On page 13 of The Times dated the 12th October 2012 a report by Martin Barrow, Health Editor, claimed that GPs are ‘failing to spot early signs of eating disorders’ as number of sufferers soars. The article followed a typical format: identifying family doctors as being at the root of the problem through an inability to understand, assess and manage appropriately its various manifestations. I was not surprised to see that the views of the chief executive of ‘Beat’ – the eating disorders charity – featured prominently. She presented opinions as facts and portrayed the GP in a negative light.
No doubt the intention behind the publication of such material is – so far as the charity is concerned – to draw attention to their cause. I have no issue with this so long as demonstrable facts rather than hypotheses are presented. So far as the newspaper is concerned the intention is to sell copy – and any article that portrays doctors as lazy, ignorant, greedy or whatever is certainly going to do that.
No – the problem for sufferers from eating disorders is one of very limited resources for a condition that requires intensive, time consuming and costly intervention. And possibly – I cannot say certainly – a public that is much less sympathetic towards eating disorders than it would be, say, towards heart disease or breast cancer.
In my 40 years as a GP and a teacher of young doctors in training to become GPs I gained a considerable experience of people with eating disorders. I would emphatically counter any suggestion that GPs ignore the possibility of an eating disorder presenting even in its earliest stages. The problem for family doctors is not that they are ignorant or disinterested, but the perception that when they refer patients any number of barriers is put up. Not least one of long waiting lists. The other problems are those of denial and concealment on the part of sufferers and their families. On those occasions when I tactfully raised the possibility with patient and parents by far the commonest reaction was that of a refusal to accept it. But in the end the GP is trained and equipped to gain the confidence of patient and family so that the true nature of the problem is acknowledged and treatment plans initiated. I acknowledge that GPs may have failed in the past, but the present day vocationally trained doctor is far less likely to fail the patient.
Eating disorders present to GPs one of the greatest challenges in their day to day work. And, contrary to such misreporting as appeared in The Times on the 12th October, they will rise to it and do the best they possibly can. Knocking the GP will really not help the cause at all. It is the politicians who should be pressured to ensure that effective, adequate and local resources for treatment are put in place.
And perhaps a little more attention, too, should be paid to identifying the possible causes of eating disorders. Not just by the health professionals, but by the families as well.