Eating disorder treatments cost-effective but under-funded

First-of-its-kind research has analysed the cost-effectiveness of front-line treatments for eating disorders in Australia.

Psychotherapies for life-threatening and debilitating eating disorders are cost-effective, but public funding is available for less than half the amount of sessions the average person needs, according to Deakin University-led research.

Lead researcher Mr Long Le, a PhD candidate in the University’s School of Health and Social Development, said studies showed an average of 20 to 30 sessions were required for these treatments to be effective, but patients only received Medicare funding for 10.

“This means many people may need to stop treatment before it has been effective,” Mr Le said.

[testimonial_text]But our studies show it’s vital we keep people in these treatments, as the more people drop-out, the more likely the intervention is not cost-effective.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Long Le” details=”PhD Candidate School of Health and Social Development”]
Mr Long Le[/testimonial_picture]

The studies, part of research funded by the National Health Medical Research Council (NHMRC), were recently published in the ‘International Journal of Eating Disorders’.

Study co-author Professor Phillipa Hay, Chair of Mental Health at Western Sydney University, said nearly one in 10 Australians would battle with an eating disorder at one point in their life, and anorexia nervosa had the highest mortality and suicide rates of any mental illness.

“Our research looked at anorexia nervosa in Australians aged 11 to 18, and bulimia nervosa in those aged 18 to 65, evaluating the front-line treatment supported by the Australian treatment guidelines for each,” Professor Hay said.

“For bulimia nervosa, that is cognitive-behavioural therapy, where patients work with a therapist to address patterns of thinking and behaviours that are causing them problems. For anorexia nervosa, family-based treatment is recommended, where parents and children go to therapy sessions together.

“These treatments for eating disorders are often long and challenging, requiring 20 to 30 sessions per year, double to triple what Medicare currently provides.”

Supervising researcher Associate Professor Cathy Mihalopoulos, from Deakin Health Economics, said the research found that both treatments were cost-effective when evaluating health gains and treatment costs.

Dr Mihalopoulos said the costs examined included healthcare costs from Medicare reimbursements and out-of-pocket costs, along with time and travel costs.

[testimonial_text]Early access to the treatment of eating disorders is shown to be very cost-effective to help people recover.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Associate Professor Cathy Mihalopoulos” details=”Deakin Health Economics”]

“These results are comparable with other treatments for depression or anxiety disorders – where cognitive-behavioural therapy has previously been found to be a cost-effective treatment choice – and we believe they can also be applied internationally,” she said.

“Eating disorders cost Australia $69 billion per year and have huge impacts on both families and people with the disorder, so it’s time to provide better access to potential lifesaving treatment.”

Read more: The modelled cost-effectiveness of family-based and adolescent-focused treatment for anorexia nervosa

The cost-effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy for bulimia nervosa in the Australian context

If you need help for an eating disorder or body image concern, please call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 334 673 (ED HOPE) or e-mail

Published by Deakin Research on 9 February 2018

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