We recognize that treating a patient with an eating disorder may seem daunting if you have received little training in the area. Importantly, there are several specialists in Alberta who are specifically trained to treat these complex disorders. The following steps should be taken when assessing a patient who may have an eating disorder:
Recognize the signs. Not all patients suffering from an eating disorder will present as being severely underweight. Individuals of all shapes, sizes, and weights may experience these disorders. Alberta Health Services has created “A Physician’s Guide to Eating Disorders” that can be helpful to identify signs and treatments for the illness.
Investigate potential diagnoses. The criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth-Edition (DSM-5)1 should be used to diagnose the patient if appropriate.
Be educated about best-treatment practices. This document is generally regarded as a review of gold-standard eating disorder treatments. This document should be reviewed so that the patient may be educated about best practices surrounding the treatment of their symptoms.
Talk with the patient. Many of these patients will be reluctant to discuss their symptoms. The prospect of receiving treatment is often seen as scary because it requires the patient to normalize eating and weight patterns. Be empathetic and non-judgemental about these concerns. Explain the importance of early intervention and the severe medical risks associated with their disorder. Most importantly, emphasize the fact that empirically-based treatments ARE available, and recovery is possible.
Refer if necessary. As a health care practitioner, your duty is to recognize whether you have sufficient training to treat these disorders and, if not, the patient should be referred to a specialist (link to Silver Linings’ care options list). It may be necessary and beneficial to remain active in the patient’s care, as this will facilitate long-term change and monitoring.