University of Kansas researchers develop app to treat eating disorders

By Laura Lovett

Eating disorders are traditionally tough to treat. At least 30 million people in the US have some type of eating disorder, but even with treatment only about 60 percent of patients recover from these disorders. 

Researchers at the University of Kansas are currently developing a smartphone app for clinical use to help this unmet issue, and recently landed a $50,000 award from the National Eating Disorder Association to develop the product. 

"Instead of developing new types of treatments, patient-focused treatment outcomes research is designed to improve outcomes by monitoring patient progress and providing feedback directly to therapists to enhance ongoing treatment,” Kelsie Forbush, assistant professor of clinical psychology at KU, who is leading the development of the app, said in a statement. "Research in other areas of mental illness shows that monitoring patient outcomes on a week-to-week basis can increase positive outcomes by as much as 20 percent and reduce the number of patients who would have a poor outcome by 10 percent, so it's a potentially powerful way to help patients get better."

The app will let clinicians track and assess a patient’s response to treatment using computer-adaptive technology (CAT). The app will guide clients through a series of questions drawn from two self-reporting measures commonly used to assess patients with eating disorders. The first is the Eating Pathology Symptoms Inventor (EPSI), and the second is the Inventory of Depression and Anxiety Symptoms (IDAS). 

Users can fill out the assessments on a smartphone or tablet. The treating clinician can then view the responses. Clinicians will get ‘signal warnings’ to help them see if their patient is on track and will receive suggestions on how to adjust treatment, according to the statement. The app also gives clinicians feedback on their patients’ outcomes. 

In a press statement, Forbush noted that clinicians rarely view their skills as below their peers. Therefore, a monitoring tool that also gives physicians unbiased feedback could be key. 

“My hope is that providing therapists with 'real-time' patient feedback to compensate for common biases in the ability to predict future treatment 'failures' will help to empower therapists to identify their patients who are at risk for poor outcomes early in treatment and adjust therapy,” Forbush said in a statement. 

This is not the first digital health product to address eating disorders. In 2015, Noom, a wellness app maker, collaborated with Mount Sinai hospital in New York and Kaiser Permanente to test a mobile app for people living with eating disorders. But this app had a different function from University of Kansas app. The Noom Monitor helped users track eating habits to facilitate weight management. It also had a cognitive behavioral therapy component.

"Clinicians don't have a crystal ball," Forbush said. "If they're not assessing outcomes, they can't be 100 percent accurate in predicting how clients are doing. The dashboard will signal clinicians each week — here's how your client is doing — with the user-friendly warnings and helpful tips and strategies to consider implementing if clients are not doing well. Our work is important. If we can improve client outcomes, this will have a major impact on public health by reducing the number of clients who die as a result of complications from an eating disorder."