Screening For Eating Disorders at School Could Improve Detection, Study Says

Earlier detection and diagnosis can improve outcomes and lower treatment costs.

Boston Children’s Hospital researchers found that by conducting a brief screening survey at school, teens at risk for an eating disorder could be identified earlier and this could lead to earlier diagnosis. In addition, this could also help find hard-to-detect cases, which could lower overall treatment costs and improve outcomes, according to a new report published Friday in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Many cases of eating disorders go undetected for years. This may be because the stereotype that the typical teen with an eating disorder is a thin, affluent, white female. In reality, eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and both genders, and they affect people from all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Kendrin Sonneville, a registered dietitian at Boston Children’s Division of Adolescent Medicine and the study’s senior author.

According to Boston Children’s, eating disorders, which includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, are underdiagnosed and under treated. This is especially prevalent among low-income, minority, overweight, and male teens. And worse, only 3 to 28 percent of teens with eating disorders receive treatment for their condition. Moreover, hospital reps explain, interventions for these eating disorders, such as residential treatment and lengthy therapy, tend to be very expensive, which can deter teens from getting help in the first place.

School-based screenings have gained support lately because it could help identify teens with eating disorders before it turns into a major health and financial issue. But Sonneville says that the cost-effectiveness of school-based screening for eating disorders had not been demonstrated previously. Until now, that is.

According to the study:

In order to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of a school-based screening program, Sonneville and colleagues devised a computer simulation comparing annual screening of 10- to 17-year-olds to a no-screening scenario.

The researchers found that the 5-question survey boosted detection and treatment for eating disorders. Implementing a school-based screening program is a bargain in terms of time and money; screening costs $0.35 per student, and the survey can be scored in a few minutes.

“School-based screening for eating disorders is very likely a cost-effective approach to improving the health of teens. Early diagnosis leads to early treatment, which means these youth will get better faster and oftentimes avoid the long-term damage to their health and lives that the eating disorders can cause,” Sonneville says. “A simple screening for eating disorders in schools could give millions of kids a new chance for a healthy life.”