The fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic shows us that we have a remarkable capacity for innovation and adaptation amidst adversity. Therapists pivoted to virtual sessions, mindfulness apps surged in popularity, and the internet became a lifeline for many struggling with mental health conditions.
A recent review published in Environmental Research and Public Health has found that, worldwide, the number of people affected by eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder is on the rise. These disorders are indiscriminate, impacting individuals regardless of age, gender or cultural background. While the exact cause remains elusive, we know that the convergence of genetics, environment and psychology plays a pivotal role. Crucially, the review highlights the importance of early intervention and high-quality care.
The rising necessity for comprehensive eating disorder treatment dovetails with the growing role of technology in virtual treatments. Today, there are some treatment facilities that lean on technological platforms to offer confidential and timely support, in real time, for those navigating the path to recovery.
Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, cofounder of the virtual eating disorder treatment facility Within Health elaborated, “We knew out of the gate that we would need to find ways to connect with our patients despite our not being ‘in the room’ with them.”
“We started the process by creating an app that is user friendly, warm, inviting and uplifting. This ease of contact facilitates our connection and our ability to interface with clients while they are actually in their life. With our chat feature, we can build in added support and create a variety of interventions with clients that may happen even outside of programming.”
While the development of such technological tools is promising, real-world evidence further illustrates their efficacy.
A 2023 case report published in the Journal of Eating Disorders dives deep into the experience of an individual suffering from binge eating disorder and gives us an insider’s perspective on how leveraging technology to treat eating disorders remotely can be viable. Here are two things that stand out:
1. Technology Enables Remote Delivery Of Effective Treatment
A classic study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology has shown us programs that treating mental health conditions is only as effective as the therapeutic alliance (the bond between a patient and the health care professional) allows.
“The role of technology is to facilitate the connection and to extend the connection of the patient to the provider. It is through technology that more people can be reached, and more connections can be made,” explained Oliver-Pyatt.
The case study of the binge eating disorder treatment underscores this point. The patient, facing mobility challenges due to her broken foot, benefited from the ability to engage in treatment from home, which not only eliminated potential physical hurdles but also addressed psychological barriers, like hesitation to seek treatment due to shame.
Such digital services also facilitate the maintenance of a virtual alumni network that can evolve and expand, offering a “home base” where patients can continually re-anchor themselves.
While technology can help maintain the critical bond between patients and providers, it also offers an opportunity to redefine traditional treatment paradigms, particularly concerning mindfulness and weight:
2. Remote Delivery Of Treatment Can Promote Mindfulness And Weight-Inclusivity
Traditionally, treatments for eating disorders had a one-size-fits-all approach, primarily focusing on weight as a primary outcome. However, such a narrow view can sometimes inadvertently stigmatize and undermine the therapeutic process, especially for patients who have internalized weight-related shame.
A 2022 study looked at 55 individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and found that shame was a common emotion they experienced. Those who experienced heightened levels of shame were more likely to have body dissatisfaction and a stronger drive for thinness.
“It is through acceptance that we find a path to mindfulness. One cannot be mindful while also being in a state of shame directed toward oneself. Without mindfulness there is no foundation for self-compassion and self-care,” Oliver-Pyatt pointed out.
The case study emphasizes the potential advantages of remote treatment in offering flexibility, decreasing the impact of weight-related shame and providing a conducive environment for individuals who might feel stigmatized in traditional in-person settings.
This convenience, combined with the weight-inclusive approach of her program, likely contributed to the patient’s heightened mindfulness. Her ability to address her symptoms without the looming pressure of weight-focused outcomes meant she could genuinely turn inward, practicing self-awareness and compassion.
In remote settings, a healthcare team is able to observe the patient’s stressors and triggers as they arise. Being able to monitor what the patient experiences, while providing comfort, guidance and support can add a layer of consistency to the treatment process, ultimately helping the patient navigate their journey to recovery independently, with the knowledge that support is available at all times.
Remote-care technology has reached unprecedented levels of sophistication, which can potentially lead to treatments for eating disorders becoming more accessible and effective. With this innovative approach, the boundaries limiting traditional care could dissolve, offering hope, inclusivity and tailored support to those who need it most.