Sharp Decrease In Hospitalizations For Eating Disorders: What Does It Mean?

Sharp Decrease In Hospitalizations For Eating Disorders: What Does It Mean?

In 1999, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), began tracking the number of hospitalizations due to eating disorders.

Hospitalizations Due To Eating Disorders

In their statistics, they tracked the number of people who are admitted primarily for an eating disorder, who are admitted for another illness but an eating disorder is a secondary concern, and who are admitted for a different illness, but are found to have an eating disorder while they are in the hospital.

According to the agency, between 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, the most recently available data, the number of eating disorder related hospitalizations decreased 23 percent. This decrease relates specifically to the number of people who were admitted primarily for an eating disorder.

The eating disorders defined in the study were:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Eating disorder, unspecified
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Pica
  • Rumination disorder
  • Psychogenic vomiting
  • Other

Decrease In Specific Population

The most common types of eating disorders in the United States are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and the decrease in those patients accounted for the majority of the overall decrease. Unlike the number of primary diagnoses for anorexia and bulimia, pica, an eating disorder in which people eat non-food items like dirt, rocks, cloth, and clay, saw an increase in hospitalizations. Many of the children (31 percent) who were hospitalized for pica also fell on the autism spectrum, a condition which has also seen a rise in the last decade.

In addition to the decrease in principal diagnoses related to eating disorder-related hospitalizations, the agency found that most patients who suffered from an eating disorder were hospitalized for depression, schizophrenia, alcohol-related disorders, and fluid and electrolyte disorders. The number of people with a secondary diagnosis of an eating disorder admitted to the hospital increased from 17,118 cases in 1999 to 23,946 in 2009, an increase of nearly 40 percent.

What Does It Mean?

For many eating disorder experts, these numbers suggest that the decrease in primary diagnoses related to eating disorders means that fewer people are suffering from eating disorders. The experts believe the public service announcements targeted to young women, often the primary candidates for the diseases, are working.

While the number of people suffering from eating disorders may be lower, the increase in the secondary diagnoses for eating disorders should cause concern. Eating disorders are often accompanied by an additional psychological illness, like depression or schizophrenia, and it is important to ensure that patients receive care for both eating disorders and mental illnesses.

More Advocacy Is Needed

Not only are hospitals seeing an increase of people diagnosed with an eating disorder as a secondary illness, but the study also found that the number of men who were admitted to hospitals with a principal diagnosis of an eating disorder increased from 6.5 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2009.

The fact that fewer people with eating disorders are hospitalized for their disorder may be a good thing—a signal that fewer people are suffering from the disease, and that they are managed before they require hospitalization. These numbers, however, should not lull advocates into silence.

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