ER could be a good place to identify undiagnosed eating disorders among teens

Published on November 20, 2012 at 5:54 AM · No Comments

Could the emergency room be a good place to spot undiagnosed eating disorders among teens, and help steer them to treatment? A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that could be the case.

Researchers screened more than 940 teens and young adults aged 14 years to 20 years for eating disorders, as part of their visit to the U-M Emergency Department for any non-psychiatric reason.

They found that 16 percent - more than one in every 6 - had indications of an eating disorder. Those that did were also much more likely to also show signs of depression and substance abuse - conditions that often go hand-in-hand with eating disorders.

The results are published in the November issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

The researchers, from the U-M Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and Department of Psychiatry, and the Center for Eating Disorders of Ann Arbor, MI, also noted that more than a quarter of the patients with signs of eating disorders were male - a higher percentage than might be expected.

Contrary to most people's perceptions of eating disorders, but consistent with what experts know about the condition, the patients who screened positive for eating disorders in the ER were more than three times as likely to be obese than those without eating issues.

Although anorexia nervosa is the most commonly known eating disorder, and calls to mind images of unhealthily skinny teens, bulimia and binge eating are also eating disorders - and are known to be associated with overweight and obesity.

Suzanne Dooley-Hash, M.D., who led the study, works as an emergency physician at U-M. She started the effort because she had a sense that eating disorders were more common among ER patients than the care teams there might think - it's just that no one was asking about it.

For many teens and young adults, ER visits are more common than regular doctor visits -- or the only form of medical care they get. In fact, teens who received public assistance of some sort were more likely to have signs of eating disorders in the ER study population.

So the idea of screening for eating disorders there, and helping at-risk teens get treatment after they leave the ER, could be an effective way of stemming problems before they become even more serious. Similar approaches have been taken for drug and alcohol abuse, risky driving, and other risky behaviors.

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