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Family-based treatment of anorexia promising


LAS VEGAS – Mounting evidence demonstrates that a family-based approach to treating adolescents with anorexia nervosa usually is more effective than hospitalization.

“In the history of psychiatric literature, families have been blamed a lot for psychiatric problems in their children,” James Lock, MD, PhD, said at the annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. “Parents are put off by anorexia nervosa, because it’s a very confusing illness and terrifying for them to have their children radically change their behavior. These are kids who are often high achieving and have generally been easy to manage: self-starters, self-directors. Then, suddenly, over a period of 6-7 months, they go from being very well to being at death’s door.”

Enter family-based treatment (FBT) for anorexia nervosa, an outpatient intervention appropriate for children and adolescents who are medically stable. Developed around 2001, FBT is designed to restore weight and put the patient’s development back on track. It’s a team approach consisting of a primary therapist, a pediatrician, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Brief hospitalization sometimes is used to resolve medical concerns. Dr. Lock, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford (Calif.) University, described FBT as “a highly focused staged treatment that emphasizes behavioral recovery rather than insight and understanding or cognitive change. This approach might indirectly improve family functioning and reduce eating-related cognitive distortions for the adolescent.”

According to Dr. Lock, coauthor with Daniel Le Grange, PhD, of “Treatment Manual for Anorexia Nervosa: A Family-Based Approach” second edition, (New York: Guilford Press, 2015), the current evidence base for FBT is limited, consisting of 879 patients enrolled in 11 studies at 12 different sites in four countries, as well as one meta-analysis. “We have not done the kind of research in anorexia nervosa that we need to do,” he said. “Parents ask me this every time I sit down with them: ‘Why don’t we know more? Why don’t we have more clinical guidance?’ It’s not been a priority despite the seriousness of this problem [and the] lifelong impact it has.”

Interest in FBT emerged in part because of studies demonstrating the limitations of hospitalizing patients with the disorder. One trial from the United Kingdom found that, among 90 children who were randomized to one of two outpatient treatments, to an inpatient arm, or to no treatment, no differences in outcomes were observed among the treatment groups (Br J Psychiatry. 1991;159:325-33). Similar results were found in a trial of 167 children who were randomized to either inpatient psychiatric treatment or two forms of outpatient management (Br J Psychiatry. 2007;191[5]:427-35). “If you think hospitalization will cure kids with anorexia, this study tells you that isn’t true,” Dr. Lock said. “It doesn’t say that it doesn’t benefit some people. What it says is that, on average, it’s not better than outpatient treatment for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. It’s important to build systems of care around that knowledge.”

Dr. Lock has his own opinion as to why inpatient psychiatric treatment alone usually doesn’t help anorexia nervosa patients in the long-term. “Learning in an inpatient setting is not generalizable,” he said. “You cannot learn and apply the learning that you get in the hospital to your real life: in your family and your school and your social processes. You can dress up psychotherapy any way you want to, but ultimately, it’s about learning. Can parents learn to be effective at helping their children with anorexia nervosa recover?”

In general, FBT is delivered in three phases over the course of 6-12 months. Phase I involves helping parents assume control of weight restoration in their child. “It tries to accomplish at home what could have been accomplished at a hospital by a nursing staff who are trained and able to disrupt and manage destructive behaviors that lead to weight loss and reinforce cognitive distortions,” Dr. Lock said. In phase II, parents gradually hand control over eating back to their child, while phase III involves shifting the family back to discussing adolescent issues without anorexia nervosa at the center of their concern. One fundamental assumption of FBT, he continued, is that it takes an agnostic view as to the cause of anorexia.

“We don’t have to address cause in order to have an effective treatment,” said Dr. Lock, also a professor of pediatrics at the university. “We are going to try to help patients and parents feel valued, not blamed. Secondly, we need to engage parents in a consultative way, recognizing their skills around their family, and help them apply that to anorexia nervosa.” The expected outcome should be a healthy weight, based on the child’s age. According to Dr. Lock, 79% of patients who have gained at least 4 pounds after 4 weeks of FBT will have a favorable treatment response, while 71% of those who don’t meet that benchmark are likely to fail treatment. “The therapeutic alliance is important in treatment outcome, but our studies suggest it is not enough,” he said. “You have to engage people in treatment to get them started, but if you don’t help the parents be effective in promoting weight gain, your therapeutic alliance will diminish.”

In a randomized trial that compared FBT with adolescent-focused individual therapy (AFT) for adolescents with anorexia nervosa, Dr. Lock and his associates found that, at both 6- and 12-month follow-up, FBT was significantly superior to AFT in helping patients achieve full remission, which was defined as normal weight for age and a mean global Eating Disorder Examination score within one standard deviation of published means (Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67[10]:1025-32). A separate trial found that, after FBT was implemented at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, admissions decreased by 50%, readmissions decreased by 75%, and the overall number of days patients spent in the hospital fell by 51% (J Pediatr Health Care. 2014 Jul-Aug 28[4]:322-30).

During the first FBT meeting with patients and their families, Dr. Lock discusses the hazards of anorexia nervosa, including the increased risk of death by cardiac arrest and suicide. “I instill the fact that we have a crisis on our hands, and we need to block the development of anorexia nervosa,” he said. “We have no evidence-based treatments for anorexia nervosa once it becomes chronic, and that occurs after about 5 years. The onset is about age 14. At age 19, on average, your chances of complete recovery are greatly diminished. Of course, you can still be of help by supporting improvement in the quality of their lives; you may help improve their thinking and you may help them restore weight, but many will live with the ongoing anorexia nervosa. So, our greatest chance to be effective is early intervention and the window of opportunity is 3-4 years.” Emphasizing these realities “stops people,” he said. “It’s meant to bring them into clear awareness of what they’re facing.”

Dr. Lock disclosed that he has received grant or research support from the National Institute of Mental Health. He also is a consultant for the Training Institute for Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders and has received royalties from Guilford Press and Oxford Press.

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