Adults with eating disorders in some parts of England have to wait more than 10 times longer for treatment than in other areas, a charity has warned.
Patients also face a postcode lottery in the likelihood of a referral, which puts their lives at risk, according to the report by Beat.
Waiting times at one eating disorder service averaged five and a half months, while another service had average waiting times of two weeks.
Nationally, almost one in five adults have to wait for more than four months to begin treatment.
The charity said this is at a time when they may be feeling suicidal or at severe risk of their illness worsening.
The long waiting times and uncertainty means some patients are making themselves more ill in order to access treatment faster.
The report also showed that the availability of treatment varied drastically between services. Some services offered treatment to up to 80 people per 100,000 population, while others accepted between 12 and 15 for the same population size.
Although staffing levels are similar among the majority of services, the service with the highest staffing levels had nine times as many staff per 100,000 population as the service with the lowest. This disparity also applied to the number of staff available to each accepted patient, with a nine-fold difference between the services with most and least staff.
Without access to specialist staff, many patients have to rely on GPs or nurses who are not trained to deal with eating disorders. Beat warned this can pose risks to patient safety.
The charity’s chief executive Andrew Radford argued that the research should set alarm bells ringing in the government and NHS.
“Eating disorders have among the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, yet people’s chances of recovery are being subjected to a lottery and lives are at risk,” he warned.
Radford said that although the government has improved services for children and young people through waiting times targets and extra funding, adults are being left behind.
“They have committed to testing waiting times targets for adults, and it is vital that these targets are introduced as soon as possible, so that no one is denied treatment when they need help.”