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Feb. 5, 2019

Eating disorder tool may lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment

Samantha Kennedy was once an athlete who saw friends battling eating disorders. Today, she’s a Michigan State University psychiatrist who, with the help of a $15,000 research award, is looking to help athletes by intervening earlier on using a new screening tool.

Kennedy, an assistant professor and College of Osteopathic Medicine alumna, has earned the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s, or AACAP, Pilot Research Award and will use it to validate a six-question screening tool, the Disordered Eating Screen for Athletes, or DESA-6.

“It’s a much shorter screening tool to aid in identifying an eating disorder or disordered eating earlier in the disease,” she said. “There are much better outcomes in treatment if you can identify the disorder early on.”

Early diagnosis is critical for eating disorders, which have one of the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric conditions and affect both mental and physical health.

Kennedy, who practices in the MSU HealthTeam’s Psychiatry Clinic, witnessed this in competitors during her days as a professional triathlete. She began thinking about the possibility of addressing the problem while still in residency.

She started by surveying over 1,000 triathletes and included questions that she hoped identified problems unique to athletes that she had observed when she was a competitor, then continued refining the tool for broader application.

Other diagnostic tools are available to clinicians, but they are long and complex. Kennedy also added that they may not be accurate when applied to athletes who have eating patterns that might look abnormal when compared to the rest of the population.

The tools that have been used with athletes are also limited by parameters like the type of sport, level of competition, gender and age. Kennedy’s screener is the first intended for use with all athletes at any levels of competition, all sports, all ages and both genders.

To validate the tool, Kennedy’s team first compared it to an existing eating disorder assessment with adults. The results were promising, and the next step was to repeat the comparison with high school athletes. She’s been working with the Potterville, Grand Ledge, Bath, Waverly, Lansing Catholic and Potterville school districts and hopes to add additional schools.

After completing the comparison work, she’ll analyze the data and present her findings this fall at the AACAP’s annual meeting in Chicago. Her goal is a free, simple tool that will have wide application and potentially, save lives.

“My intent is for this to be used by primary care physicians, pediatricians, athletic trainers or coaches,” Kennedy said. “I want it to be free and available to everyone. I want to help athletes to be healthy and compete for years to come.”


By: Laura Probyn