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Primary care docs diagnose, but don't refer, eating disorders

November 18, 2014
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Research suggests more referrals are needed from primary care doctors to mental health professionals when dealing with eating disorders.

Existing research has shown that primary care doctors can play an important role in recognizing and diagnosing a patient with an eating disorder. However, new research suggests that while those physicians can be adept at identifying signs and symptoms, they may not be sure of what to do next.

In research presented at this month's Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies' annual conference, a team including Stacey Cahn, associate professor, psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and graduate student Ashley Higgins studied the responses of primary care doctors and residents who watched videos of simulated patient interactions. An actor portraying a patient would list a number of symptoms associated with anorexia (without explicitly stating the disease) to another actor portraying a doctor. The viewers would then attempt to identify the cause of the symptoms. Cahn and Higgins found that the doctors were correctly able to identify that a patient either had an eating disorder, or specifically, anorexia, about 60 percent of the time. Yet less than 40 percent recommended follow up with a mental health professional.

Higgins said a larger study would need to be done to explore why it was that so few physicians recommended follow-up. "Doctors can be very intuitive when someone is reporting symptoms, but the problem might be that they are unsure of where exactly to refer their patient, and whether he or she will go (once referred)," she said.

Higgins noted that the symptom that most tipped the doctors off to an eating disorder was the loss of menstruation, coupled with a drastic drop in weight or low weight. "That was a big indicator to the viewers that something was wrong," she said.

Cahn says that literature suggests anorexia in particular is underdiagnosed, and that the best outcomes rely on early detection. To that end, primary care providers can be a powerful asset. However, she says there are several factors that can make this difficult.

"Primary care doctors receive only a minimal amount of training to recognize anorexia, so they're not always primed on what to look for, and a patient rarely discloses that he or she has an eating disorder," Cahn said.

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Materials provided by Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Primary care docs diagnose, but don't refer, eating disorders." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 November 2014. <>.
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. (2014, November 18). Primary care docs diagnose, but don't refer, eating disorders. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 10, 2023 from
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Primary care docs diagnose, but don't refer, eating disorders." ScienceDaily. (accessed December 10, 2023).

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