Coroner fears more ‘avoidable’ eating disorder deaths like Averil’s
- Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY
Failures to protect a gifted teenager with anorexia risk being repeated may lead to more deaths if action is not taken by health bodies, a coroner has warned in a new report.
Averil Hart, a 19-year-old from Suffolk, died in December 2012 after losing weight during her first term at the University of East Anglia.
A coroner ruled in November 2020 that her death was avoidable and contributed to by neglect at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, where she was rushed to after collapsing on December 7, 2012.
Her inquest heard doctors failed to provide any nutritional support in the four days she spent on the ward, during which time she rapidly deteriorated and later died after being transferred to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Assistant Cambridgeshire coroner Sean Horstead also oversaw the separate inquests of anorexic women Maria Jakes, Emma Brown, Madeleine Wallace and Amanda Bowles.
The deaths of all five women are referred to in a prevention of future deaths report published on Monday by Mr Horstead, which focuses on Averil’s case.
“For all of these women anorexia nervosa was identified as the medical cause of death; to a significant degree, the five inquests shared common themes of concern,” the coroner wrote.
“In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken.”
Addressed to health secretary Matt Hancock, NHS England, the General Medical Council, and training bodies Health Education England and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the report urges action to address four main concerns.
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- ‘Inadequate’ training of doctors and other medical professionals around eating disorders
- A lack of formally commissioned monitoring of moderate to high-risk anorexia nervosa patients by primary or secondary care providers
- A lack of robust and reliable data on the prevalence of eating disorders
- The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on medical training and availability of data
All of the health bodies copied into the report must respond to the coroner outlining how they plan to take action by April 28, 2021.
Mr Horstead is also planning to explore the recording of eating disorder deaths further with the Medical Examiner for England and Wales, the Office for National Statistics and the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales.
He added: “In my view, taken together, the absence of statistically robust data on the numbers of those suffering from eating disorders and the potential under-estimation of those deaths to which eating disorders may have caused or contributed, gives rise to an objective risk that avoidable eating disorder deaths will continue in the future.”
During Averil’s inquest, the coroner described a “level of ignorance” of anorexia among health professionals. This was echoed in the treatment of all five women.
Gaps in community eating disorder care, which the coroner likened to a ‘postcode lottery’ in the east of England where medical check-ups typically fell to GPs, were also identified.
The Academy of Royal Colleges confirmed it had received the report and extended sympathies to the families of all five women. It intends to respond in due course.
Professor Colin Melville, medical director and director for education and standards at the GMC, said: "Eating disorders are a complex, high-risk area of practice that should be covered in every doctor’s education.
"We’re carefully considering the coroner's recommendations as we continue to work with stakeholders to drive positive change.
"We’ve asked medical schools to address knowledge gaps and agree a common approach to improve the way eating disorders are taught at medical school.
"New resources covering early diagnosis, monitoring and treatment, are now in development with experts from Beat and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to support students, trainees and practising professionals with updated information.
"Better education, along with system-wide reform, is crucial to prevent more avoidable deaths, and to help more patients recover."
All five organisations required to respond to the coroner's recommendations have been contacted for comment.
• For eating disorder support, contact Beat.