Eating disorders in kids, young adults surged in COVID-19 pandemic

Inpatient and outpatient volume more than doubled and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new study. Researchers say the consequences could be seen for years to come.

Hospitals and health systems witnessed a spike in adolescents and young adults being treated for eating disorders, researchers found.

Inpatient and outpatient volume more than doubled across 14 academic medical centers treating adolescents, according to the study published Nov. 7 in Jama Pediatrics.

The surge in admissions and assessments peaked in early 2021, and dipped somewhat by the end of the year. However, both inpatient and outpatient numbers remained sharply higher than pre-pandemic levels, the study found. The study examined volume at medical centers across the country.

“We believe that our findings indicate that the current health care system for patients with EDs (eating disorders) may quickly become overwhelmed by the pandemic-associated increase in volume of patients with EDs,” the authors wrote. “Prepandemic, there was already a lack of available medical, nutrition, and mental health clinicians with specific ED-related training.”

Sydney Hartman-Munick, the study’s first author and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, told CNN the research shows the rise in eating disorders “wasn’t just a phenomenon in one place.”

“The results are in line with what we were all feeling working day to day in our clinics and in the hospital,” she told CNN.

The researchers noted that eating disorder programs based outside of hospitals resorted to waiting lists due to a lack of space.

While the volume stabilized later in 2021, the researchers noted that patients can spend years recovering from eating disorders. And they’re at risk for relapse.

“Thus, the increases associated with the pandemic are likely to be of consequence for the foreseeable future,” the authors wrote. “Timely diagnosis and treatment are essential for improved prognosis for patients with EDs.”

The study examined inpatient and outpatient admission trends beginning in 2018 and running through 2021. In 2018, there were 81 inpatient admissions for eating disorders among adolescents and young adults at the medical centers, and admissions rose to 163 by December 2020, eventually peaking at 208 in April 2021. Inpatient admissions averaged 181 per month during the last eight months of 2021.

Looking at outpatient volume, there were 195 assessments in January 2018, but assessments rose to 274 in December 2020. Outpatient visits peaked at 425 in March 2021, and averaged 376 per month through the final eight months of 2021.

The researchers noted that their findings contrast with declines in emergency department visits and outpatient visits for other non-COVID diagnoses, which have remained below pre-pandemic levels.

The increased admissions and visits for eating disorders “seem to represent a unique pandemic-associated trend,” the authors wrote.

Telehealth offers the potential to provide greater access to treatment, the researchers said, but they noted that virtual care options may not aid some patients.

The researchers said the study underscores the importance of expanding the capacity of treatment programs and the need to train more healthcare professionals to treat patients with eating disorders. They also pointed to developing more effective strategies to prevent eating disorders.

Eating disorders can affect all types of people, regardless of age, race, gender identity or sexual orientation. Doctors say eating disorders can often coincide with other such as anxiety, depression and substance use.

As much as 10% of all Americans struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the study. Eating disorders carry an enormous societal cost of $64.7 billion.

Researchers said to their knowledge, this is one of the few studies examining trends in admissions for eating disorders among young people at multiple sites in the pandemic.