Sunday 29 January 2012

Would GPs be so slow in responding if we were talking cancer?

I went along to an all-day BEAT conference in Leeds yesterday, with another ED mum I know well. One thing that came across strongly from the various speakers and discussions was the apathy, lack of awareness and sheer dragging of feet shown by British GPs when faced with a young person needing to be referred for eating disorder treatment.

Virtually everyone at the BEAT conference who had had an eating disorder, or was the parent of someone who had had an eating disorder, had experienced a shockingly slow response from their GP at the start.

I've already written about how many times I had to drag Ben to our GP before he was referred for treatment. Also the fact that not once did our GP tell me what treatment was available; it was the school nurse who told me I must get Ben referred to the UK's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

Reluctantly our GP agreed to refer him. You could almost hear him sigh and shake his head at what probably seemed to him like an over-protective mother worrying over nothing. After all, it's not unusual to see a 16 year old skinny boy who is fussy about food - so he wasn't overly worried, simply telling Ben to go home and eat more, then come back in a couple of weeks if nothing improved.

So we went away and we came back when nothing improved only to be told to go away again, eat more and come back in a couple of weeks if nothing improved...

When I eventually persuaded our GP to refer Ben, I had no idea we would have to wait MONTHS for our first treatment apppointment. The GP didn't tell me that. He was also singularly unhelpful on the various occasions I returned to the surgery, desperate to see if we could get Ben fast-tracked through the system.

Much later on, during treatment, CAMHS asked Ben to go along to the GP for a full medical. The GP (another GP) admitted he hadn't "a clue" what he was "supposed to be doing", obviously completely baffled as to why we were in his surgery.

Yesterday at the BEAT conference I listened to experience after experience that echoed my own. But it's not as if nothing has been done to try and resolve the problem. BEAT has carried out a massive mailing campaign to GPs inviting them to awareness / training sessions on identifying the early signs of eating disorders.

They got virtually zero response. Apparently GPs don't go on training sessions or to conferences unless there's a freebie or other incentive in it for them. Well that's the impression BEAT got at any rate and the fact they got zero response seems to endorse this.

Of course there is the odd good GP story to tell. I know of at least one mum whose GP was central in helping her bring her daughter successfully through the eating disorder after she 'fired' her local CAMHS for being next to useless.

But I get the feeling that these are the 'old school' GPs... the friendly village doctor who knows all his patients by name, not the massive city surgery where you see a different GP every time.

A GP is usually the first point of contact on the road to getting treatment for anorexia - and, because of the nature of the disorder, the young person is already quite entrenched in the illness before a worried parent makes that crucial first appointment.

It is well known that early medical intervention speeds up recovery. But not only are we having to wait weeks, possibly months, before our GPs make that crucial referral for treatment - we then have to go on a ridiculously lengthy waiting list before our child gets that treatment.

By this time the young person's condition has often deteriorated significantly requiring lengthier, more complex treatment and often in-patient treatment.

If our GPs took a parent's concerns more seriously and dealt with them more urgently, and if the young person could then be fast-tracked into treatment, not only would it increase the chances of a quicker recovery and, in some cases, of survival but it would surely work out much less costly to our UK National Health Service.

Eating disorders have the biggest mortality rate of all mental illnesses and they can destroy young people's lives in other ways, too. And the number of young people with eating disorders is growing at a dramatic and terrifying pace. So they really should be taken as seriously as any other potential fatal condition.

I'd hazard a guess that if we were talking about cancer, our children would be fast-tracked into treatment at a rate of knots. I would also hazard a guess that GPs would show a little more interest if the mailout was an invitation to an awareness or training day on identifying the early signs of a potentially fatal cancer in young people.

I rest my case.

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