Faster treatment for eating disorder patients aim of conference

An Edmonton mother wants to help educate medical professionals on how to recognize early signs of eating disorders and how to get patients into treatment faster.

Dental hygienists, dentists, can see signs of bulimia in victims' mouths

Medical professionals like dentists and dental hygienists may see signs of bulimia in a patient's mouth. (CBC )

Sue Huff says she can breathe easily again.

Her daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder in 2012. The teen's health deteriorated rapidly in just four months, but she needed two years of intensive treatment to recover.

During that time, Huff's daughter relapsed once and was admitted to hospital multiple times.

In Canada 1.5 per cent of women aged 14 to 25 reported having an eating disorder in 2002, according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.

Despite the prevalence of the disorder, Huff says one of the biggest challenges was getting treatment. 

She took her daughter to a family doctor after noticing dramatic changes in her health. Huff says the doctor recognized signs of an eating disorder and referred her daughter to a dietician. 

"We were told to wait for a dietician to call us - and that call didn't come for four months," Huff said. "We didn't wait because we recognized that this was a very serious situation."

Instead Huff took her daughter to a special eating disorder program at the University of Alberta. She was admitted for treatment within days.

"Luckily we found another entrance to that program," Huff said. "If we had waited for things to be processed following the procedure with the family doctor, I don't know that my daughter would be alive today."

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association in the United States. For women between 15 and 24 suffering from anorexia, "the mortality rate associated with the illness is twelve times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death."

Closing the gaps

Huff's experience with her daughter's illness motivated her to help found the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta in 2014. As executive director, Huff is now at the helm of an awareness project rolling out in conjunction with Canada's eating disorder awareness week from Feb. 1 to 7. 

The event in Edmonton features a panel on Wednesday especially for health care professionals that aims to close gaps in the eating disorder treatment system. 

"It's not consistent enough for us to have full confidence that no matter who you go to, [the eating disorder] is going to be treated well," Huff said.

One of the biggest disconnects in the system is between the medical and counseling professions, according to registered psychologist Dr. Angela Grace.

"It's frustrating for me as a professional because I have the knowledge and expertise to work with people both in prevention and treatment and yet there's referral barriers," Grace said. 

"People don't know that there's help available, and doctors don't know where to refer outside of the eating disorder programs."

Grace says there's a general lack of knowledge in the medical system about resources such as Huff's eating disorder support network. Instead, she says doctors refer their clients to programs with wait-lists that can stretch as long as a year.

More education for professionals

At the University of Alberta, eating disorders have become part of training for future medical professionals. Classes and panels focused on eating disorders are a mandatory component of the university's dental hygiene program. 

Eating disorder symptoms often manifest themselves in the mouth according to Barbara Gitzel, a clinical professor of dental hygiene. For instance, teeth become eroded in bulimia sufferers who purge themselves by vomiting because stomach acids eat away at tooth enamel. 

Gitzel says talking about eating disorders is one of the most difficult interventions her students will face. That's why dental hygiene students at the University of Alberta are trained on how to talk to clients if they suspect something is wrong. 

"We can't just be nice because then we'll just go along with them - we'll end up condoning what they do if we're just nice," Gitzel said. "We need to express an actual concern."

For those already working in the health care system, training and information about eating disorders can be difficult to find.

"If you need information, you almost need to go looking for it," said Debra Coffey, a clinical counsellor. That's why she plans to attend Huff's eating disorder panel for healthcare professionals.

"When it comes to mental health, I'm not sure if there's ever enough information," Coffey said. "If we all know more, if we see symptoms sooner, maybe we can prevent it from becoming more serious."