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Eating disorder patients in Canada, denied treatment

At least a dozen adult patients with eating disorders have been discharged from a B.C. treatment program despite failing health, CBC News has learned.

They say they are being denied treatment because they have been labelled chronic cases, but the hospital says their decisions have been made according to stringent criteria.

Amber Foster, a 30-year-old from Comox who has anorexia nervosa, was discharged from the eating disorder program at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver two months ago weighing just 80 pounds.

Foster, whose liver is failing, told CBC News she feels like she has been sent home to die. She has lost four more pounds and is 76 pounds today.

"They said, 'You have a chronic lifelong disease that you're just going to have to learn to live with. There's nothing else you can really do,'" Foster said.

Foster now suffers from refeeding syndrome, which means eating food can put her at risk of a hypoglycemic coma.

'Patients deserve quality of life'

Dr. Laird Birmingham, an expert on eating disorders and former director of B.C.'s program, says discharging a patient in Foster's condition is unethical.

"This is clearly prejudice against this disease and against her. These patients deserve quality of life, they deserve to be helped to get into a state where they can live as best they can, and in B.C., this is not happening."

But Dr. Maria Corral, interim head of psychiatry at St. Paul's, denied the program is systematically sending chronic older patients home.

"We are all concerned when we hear that our patients are suffering. However, I can only reiterate that we have very stringent and evidence-based criteria with which we make these decisions."

Corral said that patients with chronic eating disorders tend to have multiple other illnesses, including mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse disorders. She said these other difficulties may fluctuate over time along with the eating disorders, which lends greater complexity to the care these patients require.

The website for the outpatient eating disorder program at St. Paul's does not elaborate on the criteria that may disqualify someone from receiving treatment.

Since CBC began making inquiries, Foster has been told B.C. may send her to a treatment facility in Edmonton.

But at least 11 other adult patients said they were denied further treatment for anorexia nervosa in B.C. because they are considered chronic.

With files from the CBC's Natalie Clancy

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