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GPs turn away anorexics for being a healthy weight

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Doctors are turning away patients with eating disorders because they appear to be a healthy weight, a campaigner has claimed.

Hope Virgo suffered a relapse of her teenage anorexia two years ago, but she was turned away by her local mental health trust because she was not underweight.

The campaigner is now calling for better enforcement of the guidelines given to clinicians when it comes to conditions such as anorexia and bulimia.

Despite being turned away, Ms Virgo says she knew she needed help.

She told Sky News: “I remember leaving that appointment feeling really hypocritical, I felt like a fake. I had this relentless anorexic voice beating me up constantly.”

After weeks of suicidal thoughts and constant crying, Ms Virgo decided she would have to manage her disorder on her own, and with support from friends and family.

Hope Virgo is campaigning for better access to eating disorder treatment
Image:
Hope Virgo is campaigning for better access to eating disorder treatment

The experience led her to start a petition called Dump The Scales, which calls for GPs and medical practitioners to take a new approach when dealing with patients who have eating disorders.

Current guidelines, set by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), are clear.

Doctors are told not to use measures such as a patient’s body mass index (BMI) or how long they have been ill to determine whether or not to offer treatment, and to ensure they are given help at the earliest opportunity.

However, Ms Virgo claims these rules are not being applied everywhere.

She said: “I don’t want to rewrite the whole of the guidelines. I think that what the guidelines say is right in regards to BMI and looking at the whole person. But I think we need to get them implemented across the whole of the country, and to actually make sure there’s standard implementation and that people are checking up on this and reporting back on this.”

Her petition gathered around 45,000 signatures in its first week, and has had support from politicians too.

Weighing scales
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Many people suffering from eating disorders are not underweight

Shadow minister for health Luciana Berger said: “We know around 20% of people affected by an eating disorder will see their life cut short because of it.

“Hope’s running a really important campaign to ensure that the guidelines that are out there really are subscribed to, because we know too many services across our country do not follow NICE guidelines and just determine whether someone can determine an eating disorder service by way of their BMI, how low in weight they are.”

An NHS England spokesperson said: “All decisions about treatment should be taken jointly between the clinician and the patient, and always based on best evidence and national guidance so everyone gets the right treatments at the right time.”

Hope now has over 55,000 signatures on her petition
Image:
Hope now has more than 55,000 signatures on her petition

James Downs is hoping that will eventually be the case for him.

A Cambridge Master’s student, he has struggled for years with eating disorders. When he moved away from home and bulimia began to affect his work, he decided to see his GP.

He said: “It got to the point where the bulimia was really taking over, I couldn’t keep up with my studies, I had even had this one attempt at an overdose and was really, really struggling.

“The GP wrote a referral to the eating disorder service and when they came back, I was really surprised because I had a really high level of symptoms in terms of bulimia was taking up multiple hours per day, and the referral said they wouldn’t be able to see me because they had staffing shortages and also that I was medically stable.”

Because James was a healthy weight, it seemed he did not qualify for assistance.

He said: “I’ve struggled with bulimia ever since then. And that means I binge and purge every day, still. To this day, even though I look completely healthy and fit, it’s still a part of my life. I’ve tried to reduce that impact but I’m not able to access NHS services because I’m considered medically stable.”

Ms Virgo now has over 55,000 signatures on her petition, and she is hoping, for the sake of patients like James, that it will not only change how doctors treat eating disorders, but also how we all relate to them.

She said: “I know when you say the word anorexic, people always think of someone really skinny, a gaunt teenage girl. But that’s not always the reality of it. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.”

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