Initial treatment seeking from professional health care providers for eating disorders: A review and synthesis of potential barriers to and facilitators of "first contact"

Int J Eat Disord. 2017 Mar;50(3):190-209. doi: 10.1002/eat.22683. Epub 2017 Jan 30.


The objective of this study is to provide a comprehensive review of empirical research exploring barriers to and facilitators of initial treatment seeking ("first contact") from professional health care providers by adults and young adults with eating disorders (EDs). A search of databases PsycINFO and MEDLINE using the terms "treatment" and "eating disorder*" yielded 9,468 peer-reviewed articles published from January 1945 to June 2016. Screening identified 31 articles meeting the following criteria: (1) participants were 16 or older and presented with a self-reported or clinically diagnosed ED; (2) studies focused on (a) initial treatment seeking (b) for an ED (c) from professional health care providers; (3) articles were empirical, and (4) peer reviewed. Quantitative studies revealed few consistent correlates of treatment seeking, perhaps because most variables were examined in only one or two investigations. Variables with some degree of predictive utility (i.e., produced significant results in multiple studies) were age (older), ethnicity (nonethnic minority), ED type (anorexia, purging BN), specific ED-related behaviors (i.e., purging), and time spent on a treatment waitlist following referral (less). Although BMI was one of the most investigated variables, it did not predict treatment seeking. Qualitative studies revealed the following perceived barriers: (1) personal feelings of shame/fear, (2) ED-related beliefs/perceptions, (3) lack of access/availability, and (4) aspects of the treatment process. Perceived facilitators included (1) health-related concerns, (2) emotional distress, and (3) social support. Implications for clinical practice and areas for further research are discussed. Results highlight the need for shared definitions and methodologies across studies of treatment seeking.

Keywords: barriers; eating disorders; health service utilization; review; treatment seeking.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / therapy*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data
  • Self Report
  • Social Support
  • Young Adult