The number of children and young people starting treatment for eating disorders has more than doubled – as patients with life-threatening conditions face “worrying” delays for care, analysis has shown.
Around 11,800 children and young people under 18 began treatment in 2022-23 – up from 5,240 in 2016-17, a study by the Children’s Commissioner for England found.
But in 45% of urgent cases, patients were waiting over 12 weeks to begin treatment, almost three times more than 16% in 2016-17.
The NHS target is for 95% of children and young people with eating disorders to start treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for non-urgent cases.
The number of young people receiving hospital treatment for an eating disorder has also risen, with 24,300 people admitted to hospital in 2020-21 – up 84% since 2016-17.
Nearly half of these patients were under the age of 25 and the vast majority were women and girls.
Analysis also revealed that admissions of young men have nearly doubled, from 467 in 2016-17 to 909 in 2020-21.
It is estimated around 1.25 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder, such as bulimia, anorexia or binge-eating.
Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, said: “It’s worrying that children and young people are facing increasingly long waits for treatment for eating disorders – which are often serious and potentially life-threatening.
“Young people deserve timely access to effective care.
“The government must also focus on tackling some of the potential drivers of disordered eating.
“Children need to be robustly protected from harmful eating disorder content online which can drive body image issues.”
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said the figures “should set alarm bells ringing for the government and NHS commissioners”.
He added: “It’s completely unacceptable that children and young people are waiting so long for treatment, even in urgent cases as the risk of a longer or more complicated recovery increases with every day that passes.”
The government launched a call for evidence for its Major Conditions Strategy in May 2023.
The blueprint will look at how to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses in six groups – cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, dementia, musculoskeletal disorders and mental ill health.