September 17, 2014 5:32 pm
Updated: September 17, 2014 9:47 pm

Top doctor sounds alarm on lack of treatment for eating disorders

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 WATCH: In part two of our series on the wait for eating disorder treatment in Canada, Vassy Kapelos speaks with top doctors about what the federal government needs to do to deal with the issue before it’s too late.

Dr. Blake Woodside has been at the helm of Toronto General Hospital’s eating disorder treatment program for two decades.

It’s Canada’s largest treatment program, but it’s not big enough.

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“A woman five-foot-five and 60 pounds will wait three to four months from referral to admission to our treatment program,” Woodside said. “People give up, they get tired of waiting and they drop off our wait list and they go on to chronic illness or premature death…it’s an atrocious national shameful secret.”

For contact information for the eating disorder treatment program, click here

Woodside has long advocated for the federal government to implement national wait-time standards for eating disorders, in order to push provinces to direct funding to treatment.

“I’m talking about Toronto here with three to four months. There is no treatment in New Brunswick, there is no treatment in P.E.I., there is limited treatment in Labrador, there are no in-patient beds in Quebec, limited treatment in Alberta and B.C., and no treatment in the North,” he said.

“If anorexia was an illness of middle age men, there’d be a clinic in every hospital in this country but because it’s a psychiatric illness of young women it’s discriminated against.”

READ MORE: Fears grow as wait lists for eating disorder treatments lengthen

Last year, taxpayers in Ontario alone spent about $2.1 million sending 21 patients to the U.S. for treatment, Woodside said.

He added the figure jumps to $20 million for patients across the country.

“Does that make any sense at all? That we should send $20 million a year south rather than invest that money in the treatment capacity in Canada?”

WATCH: Lengthy waits for eating disorder treatment in Canada

The pediatric treatment program for eating disorders at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) could use that money.

Facing more demand than it had space, CHEO’s program closed to new referrals two years ago.

Now, it only takes medically unstable patients.

The program’s former director Dr. Wendy Spettigue calls the situation “awful.”

“We’ve actually not been able to treat somebody with a mild, moderate or even moderately severe eating disorder in the Ottawa region in the past two years,” she said.

“If you have a daughter that needed treatment I would have to say I’m sorry, I have to wait until she’s really sick and ready to pass out. That’s a serious problem because we know that outcome is better with early intervention and early treatment.”

Like Woodside, Spettigue has long advocated for national standards.

She’d also like to see Ottawa establish a national database and registry that would keep track of how many people in Canada have an eating disorder and how many die from one.

“There’s absolutely no registry that shows the numbers that are out there and how many young people are getting eating disorders, or needing treatment or where the funding should go or what the treatment outcomes are – any of that,” she said. “There’s a complete lack of resources but there’s also nothing to tell us what the need is.”

WATCH: Dr. Wendy Spettigue calls on Ottawa to improve wait times for eating disorder treatment

Eating disorders in women and girls has been studied for the past year by the House of Common’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the House of Commons.

Both Woodside and Spettigue testified before the committee on the need for national standards and a registry.

“I think members of the committee, from all parties, were moved by some of the stories we hear,” Susan Truppe, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Status of Women, wrote in an emailed statement.

“Anyone who has a daughter or a young woman in their life couldn’t help but think ‘What if this was my child, my niece, my friend?'”

Truppe wouldn’t commit to advocating for a national strategy or database before the committee’s report is given to Parliament later this fall.

“We heard many suggestions and have had some helpful input,” she wrote. “At the end of the day given the health impacts that eating disorders have on people, the provinces on the front lines are by far best placed to spearhead these initiatives.”

You can read Truppe’s full response below:

Is the department is alarmed by the testimony? There’s a multitude of stories about long waits and the impact of those waits on the health of people who suffer from eating disorders.

The testimony is quite striking. I think members of the Committee, from all Parties, were moved by some of the stories we heard. Anyone who has a daughter or a young woman in their life couldn’t help but think “what if this was my child, my niece, my friend” – and now, we’re seeing young men as well being affected by this as well. If the testimony was anything, it was certainly eye-opening.

Would you consider advocating for/implementing a federal eating disorder strategy – one that would establish wait time goals and provinces would have to fund accordingly?

The Committee is currently completing its study with a report to be tabled in short order. We heard many suggestions and have had some helpful input. At the end of the day given the health impacts that eating disorders have on people, the provinces on the front lines are by far best placed to spearhead these initiatives. If the testimony has taught us anything it’s that there are a multitude of reasons why one develops an eating disorder. It’s critical that doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, parents, and teachers have the resources and tools to identify these problems and help an individual recover before it becomes too late.

Would you consider advocating for/implementing a federal eating disorder database – to track how many people have eating disorders, how long they’re waiting for treatment – one that would better help allocate research funding?

This is something that was suggested at our Committee and again, a report of our recommendations will be forthcoming. This suggestion does have merit and it isn’t complicated to see how it could have benefits, but it’s important to remember that these are also things that provincial governments and healthcare networks across Canada should also be looking into. The testimony we heard is also valuable input for the provinces to look at as well so that we can all act within our jurisdictional mandates and parameters to help address this important issue.

WATCH: Dr. Blake Woodside helm’s Canada’s largest treatment program and says programs like his are chronically under-funded.

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