Eating disorder research finds telehealth can improve treatment for rural and regional youth

18 Mar, 2022

Key points:

  • Eating disorder survivor Liam Manning says more needs to be done to train regional specialists
  • A study delivering family-based treatment for anorexia nervosa sufferers via telehealth returns promising results
  • Mr Manning says such services could have helped him as a teen

Liam Manning grew up in Dubbo, in central western NSW, where he spent more than half a decade living with an eating disorder. 

He found it difficult to reach out for help, due to a lack of local awareness around eating disorders.

"I think like many rural towns, the stigma is there to just sort of buck up and be strong, so I had a lot of issues talking about what I was experiencing," he said.

"I didn't know what an eating disorder was.

"Unfortunately when I finally did reach out for help, the support services in the area … weren't able to help.

"They didn't have the expertise, they didn't have the knowledge.

"It wasn't taken seriously and I was judged by a lot of people that were supposed to be there to support. They thought it was a bit of a joke."

Mr Manning said access to specialised, research-based care, like that now offered through telehealth, would have made his recovery from anorexia nervosa significantly easier.

"It wouldn't have required multiple hospitalisations, it wouldn't have required the incredible darkness that I experienced when I was really, really unwell," he said.

"I would have caused far less damage to my body and put less strain on the family and friends that I had around me."

A woman stands outside.

InsideOut Institute researcher Ashlea Hambleton says patients treated for anorexia nervosa via telehealth are recovering well.(Supplied: InsideOut Institute)

Telehealth may solve treatment gap

Researchers from the InsideOut Institute have worked with families across five regional and rural areas of the state to deliver treatment Mr Manning did not have access to.

The study looked into the effectiveness and feasibility of using telehealth to deliver family based treatment (FBT) for anorexia nervosa, where the whole family is involved in the treatment and recovery process.

InsideOut Institute researcher and PhD candidate Ashlea Hambleton said specialised FBT was often hard for regional and rural families to access.

"We wanted to find a way to deliver treatment that's typically available in the metropolitan and urban centres of Australia directly into rural and regional towns," she said.

"There's been a lot of work that's been done to try to upskill local clinicians within general mental health services and teams.

"But for rural and regional areas, the catchment area for a particular treatment centre can be very large, so that can still mean that families and individuals are travelling very long distances [and] giving up days of work to get to and from appointments."

High demand for services also created issues, with some families left facing wait lists after being referred to private practitioners or local GP offices.

Supporting the whole family

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For Mr Manning, his family's involvement in the recovery process was crucial.

"If it wasn't for my family who really pushed me … and almost forced me to [get help] — I think that act alone from my family, which was very stressful for them, ultimately saved my life," he said.

The InsideOut Institute's project focused on delivering treatment that involved not just the young person affected by the eating disorder, but their entire family.

Ms Hambleton said the study had returned promising results, with all the participants' conditions improving.

"Families are also commenting on things like the greater flexibility of having telehealth directly into the home," she said.

Call for better medical training

Mr Manning said while services like telehealth now offered a lifeline to regional families, more needed to be done to train local healthcare professionals.

The main street of Dubbo with trees lining it.

As a teen, Mr Manning struggled to access treatment for an eating disorder in Dubbo.(ABC Western Plains: Jake Lapham)

"It's difficult because our local GPs are already overwhelmed to a large extent, but they need to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of what an eating disorder looks like," he said.

"I was seeing a GP regularly and I was seeing other medical professionals quite regularly and it wasn't until I saw a very specialised person … that they were able to recognise I had a serious problem."