University of Manchester: Experts join forces to help hospital staff to identify eating disorders

Mental health has hit the headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic as the impact of lockdowns, strains on healthcare services and fear of the virus itself have created a toxic mix which has both exacerbated existing disorders, and provoked them in others.

One of these is eating disorders, which can be so difficult to detect that hospital staff can easily miss them, and can also become emergencies in a slower way than other health problems. To help with this, a team of healthcare experts from A&E, psychology, psychiatry and gastroenterology led by Dr Anisa Jafar has compiled a guide for emergency department staff to recognise and manage such disorders.

When healthcare services are under severe pressure as they have been for the past two years, far more patients pass through hospital emergency departments, and staff often need to treat conditions which may usually be looked after by other teams. Therefore, more patients with either new or pre-existing eating disorders have been seen by emergency department staff during the pandemic.

However, eating disorders are complex, and patients with them require a highly skilled team to take charge of their care. Hospital workers must be highly alert to such disorders in order to ensure they don’t miss cases who either need specialist care, or to prevent them from becoming so unwell that they need to be admitted to hospital in the first place.

Dr Jafar, an NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer in Emergency Medicine based at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, along with the rest of the team, wanted to create the guide to help those working in emergency departments to understand more about eating disorders. As they are so complicated, there are many ethical, psychological, psychiatric, nutritional and physical issues to consider.

“In the emergency department we are trained to look after all sorts of things, but eating disorders can be so difficult to detect that we can easily miss them,” said Dr Jafar. “Of all mental health conditions, they are the most likely to result in death, but they can be fully treated with the right support.”


Not everyone can be a specialist and understand all there is to know – however, if we can educate each other a little in eating disorders, we can detect them earlier, treat them more quickly and also stop those who are becoming more serious from slipping through the net.

Dr Anisa Jafar


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“Although we could not cover everything, we have managed to cover the most important points in our paper. We hope, if everyone in the emergency department gets the chance to read it, they’d know enough to cover all the basics and pick up those people most in danger.

“Of course, this is just the start – more funding for specialist eating disorder services and better links to access the services are urgently needed if we are to make a real difference.”

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