Three out of 10 people with an eating disorder do not receive a referral from their GP to a mental health service for treatment, according to eating disorder charity Beat, which it said was despite NICE guidance advising immediate referral.
A survey conducted by the charity of 1,700 patients with eating disorders found that half rated their GP’s level of care as good or very good – but the other half described it as poor or very poor.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said referrals were not necessarily appropriate for all patients, as some cases can be effectively treated within primary care. Other patients may request not to be referred, she added.
‘The findings of Beat's survey regarding referral are neither surprising nor inappropriate – they are actually more indicative of GPs' understanding of and sensitivity towards patient choice and the elephant in the room: a severe lack of appropriate services in the community for GPs to refer patients on to,' said Professor Stokes-Lampard.
Treating complex mental health conditions was difficult with the pressures of 10-minute consultations, the RCGP chair warned, especially if patients originally visited their GP for a different reason.
Almost one in six respondents said they had switched to a different GP after not receiving the care or help they needed the first time around.
Both the charity and the RCGP called for GP trainees to receive more training to help them diagnose the psychological and behavioural symptoms of eating disorders, and to improve rates of immediate referral.
Professor Stokes-Lampard said: ‘More, appropriate training that can help us to deliver the best possible care for our patients is always welcome, and the college has long called for GP training to be extended to four years to include a mandatory specialist-led placement in mental health – and today's figures support this call.
‘In the meantime, mental health will continue to be an enduring priority for the RCGP and we have developed a number of e-learning courses, including one on eating disorders with [charity] Anorexia Bulimia Care.
'We are also working with Mind to develop resources, including a forthcoming top tips document on eating disorders, to encourage GPs to incorporate mental health, including eating disorders, into their continued professional development.
‘Ultimately what is necessary is for substantially more investment in general practice and more GPs so we can offer longer consultations to those patients who really need them – and a greater quantity and variety of mental health services in the community that would be of great benefit to our patients with eating disorders.'
Beat chief executive Andrew Radford said: ‘We are calling for increased eating disorder training for medical students specialising in general practice so that all GPs are equipped to support eating disorder sufferers.
‘This isn’t about blaming GPs, it’s about enabling the 50% of GPs who didn’t provide good care to be as supportive of eating disorder sufferers as the 50% who did.’