Contrary to the opinion of some Perth psychologists, a prominent doctor maintains that his general practitioner colleagues are well equipped to diagnose and treat eating disorders.
Psychologist, and acting director at the state-administered Centre for Clinical Interventions, Anthea Fursland, said GPs needed more training in the field of eating disorders.
“I think what’s happening now is that some GPs will just not be responsive, not be aware, and not give adequate treatment,” Dr Fursland said.
“And other GPs will try and avoid working with people with eating disorders, because a lot of them get very sick and take up a lot of time and they have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.”
Dr Fursland said mandatory professional training should be implemented for everyone in the health field and incorporated into university curriculum.
“Education needs to involve identifying it in the first place, looking for it,” she said.
“When you go to the GP they ask you if you smoke, they ask how much you drink, but they don’t ask you what you eat and if you vomit.
“I think we need specialists, but we also need generalist practitioners to be able to work with people with eating disorders.”
However, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Frank Jones said GPs were already well placed to help identify if people had an eating disorder and assisting them with treatment.
“GPs are trained to detect eating disorders and the area is covered in the RACGP curriculum for Australian General Practice,” Dr Jones said.
“GPs are also trained to work with other health professionals to help manage the condition.
“It can be life threatening and GPs take eating disorders very seriously.”
The Western Australian arm of the Australian Medical Association declined to comment.
Fiona Cartwright, program coordinator at The Hollywood Clinic, which specialises in mental health services, said some doctors were not confident to approach their patient if they suspected an eating disorder.
“The GP runs the risk of losing the patient by confronting it too directly, but if they don’t confront it, it’s a life threatening disorder,” Dr Cartwright said.
She said more training on how to recognise eating disorders and maintain engagement with the patient was necessary to ensure patients received treatment earlier.
“I think given the range of things the GP has to do and has to do it quickly, their knowledge of eating disorders could certainly be improved,” she said.
“Given GPs have to be across such a broad range of not just mental health disorders but general disorders, illnesses, it makes it hard to find it accessible.”
The Butterfly Foundation education officer Helen Bird said the organisation’s latest report revealed only between five and 15 per cent of people with an eating disorder received treatment in any given year.
Ms Bird said doctors were given resources and training in the field of eating disorders.
“Because of the complex physical and psychiatric nature of eating disorders, treatment often includes a range of qualified practitioners such as medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, dieticians, counsellors and occupational therapists,” she said.
“GPs have a role in the treatment of eating disorders, which can encompass prevention, identification, medical management and referral.
“The National Eating Disorders Collaboration supports professionals working in this field including GPs.
“For example they have produced a general practitioners’ resource and offer free training around eating disorders awareness throughout Australia.”
A 2013 study conducted by Dr Fursland and University of Western Australia adjunct research fellow Dr Hunna Watson found 7.3 per cent of people with anxiety and depression also had an eating disorder.
Dr Fursland said the study also found that eating disorders went undetected because of a lack of training of medical practitioners.
Flinders University School of Psychology dean Tracey Wade said an effort needed to be made to ensure a greater range of medical professionals were skilled in offering treatment, not just those who considered themselves specialists.
“Particularly GPs are a good front line in terms of ensuring that people get diagnosed and then at least diverted to treatment,” Professor Wade said.
“So if that’s not happening, then people are less likely to get access to treatment and clearly that provides an ongoing burden in terms of their own quality of life and contribution to society.”
The Hollywood Clinic ran its first mental health workshop for doctors on March 7 and 50 GPs took part.
The workshop addressed eating disorders, and will run every six months.
GPs will earn professional development points for participating in the training.
If you, or someone you know, is affected by an eating disorder you can call The Butterfly Foundation’s National ED HOPE Line on 1800 33 4673.