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New funding for research into remote healthcare for eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Previous research has revealed concerns around the suitability of current remote healthcare.

Northumbria University health and cyber psychologist Dr Dawn Branley-Bell has been awarded a Medical Research Foundation Fellowship – one of four projects supported by £1.1 million of new funding to tackle eating disorders and self-harm.

A new project led by Research Innovation Fellow Dr Dawn Branley-Bell from Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology will explore what we can learn about the causes, prevention and future treatment of eating disorders following the rapid transition to remote care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Recent research by Dr Branley-Bell suggests that many individuals with eating disorders have experienced worsened symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic and reported concerns around the suitability of healthcare delivered remotely.

Such concerns included, for example, individuals seeing themselves more often on video calls, giving more opportunities to be self-critical of their appearance, or being asked to weigh themselves at home.

Building on her previous research, Dr Branley-Bell will now work alongside people with lived experience of eating disorders, healthcare providers, eating disorder charities, technology designers and other experts in the field to identify why symptoms worsened during the pandemic and to explore the challenges experienced with remote treatment.

The project will also look at how technology can be improved to increase the efficacy and security of remote eating disorder treatment. Dr Branley-Bell will work closely with people with lived experiences of eating disorders to ultimately co-design new technology and recommendations for how it should be used going forward.

Commenting on her Fellowship, Dr Dawn Branley-Bell said: “Even after COVID-19 is under control, there remains many other situations which prevent individuals from accessing face-to-face treatment. Remote care can ensure access to vital help and support. By learning from experiences during the pandemic, this research will help to improve our understanding of eating disorders and inform future healthcare, technology design, guidance and policy.”

Dr Angela Hind, Chief Executive at the Medical Research Foundation, said: “Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, eating disorders were already affecting increasing numbers of young people. Today the need for new research insight is even greater, as it’s been an immensely challenging year for many young people with these devastating conditions.

We’re excited to see what Dr Branley-Bell’s project uncovers about the impact of remote healthcare for eating disorders. These findings will be crucial as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and will also help to guide treatment of eating disorders long into the future.”

The Medical Research Foundation scheme provides postdoctoral researchers the opportunity to start independent, internationally competitive research careers in the field of eating disorders and self-harm.

This research project, and the Medical Research Foundation’s previous investments in eating disorders and self-harm research, have been made possible by a gift in Will from Catherine Evans.

Help the Medical Research Foundation continue to support much-needed research into eating disorders and self-harm, by joining their team of walkers for the Thames Bridges Trek on 11 September 2021. Find out more on their website.

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