Researchers examine efficacy of online bulimia self-help programme

Published: 24 February 2009

Researchers are investigating the effectiveness of an online self-help programme for the eating disorder bulimia.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow are investigating the effectiveness of an online self-help programme for bulimia.

They aim to find out whether an online course – – could support bulimics in their battle against the illness in the period between seeing their GP and being referred to a psychologist, which can take up to six months.

The project is being carried out by Dr Chris Williams and PhD student Carrie-Anne McClay and post-doctoral research associate Louise Ewan and is being funded with £167,000 from a bequest by Helen Hay Pollok.

The researchers will recruit up to 250 volunteers directly from the community who will be split into two groups. One group will be given immediate access to the eight-week online course, and the other will access it after a 10-week wait and the efficacy of the course will be evaluated at three, six and 12-month intervals.

Bulimia is a common eating disorder which affects around one in 20 women, usually starting in the teenage years, and can last anywhere from a few months to 10 years or more. Often the condition is present for six or seven years before sufferers consult a doctor.

Those who attend their GP seeking treatment are usually referred to psychologists who specialise in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that aims to change the way a person deals with negative thoughts which has been shown to be most effective in treating bulimia. Doctors may also prescribe anti-depressants for anxiety or depression.

However, long waiting lists for CBT practitioners often means patients get worse or give up on professional treatment, which is why Dr Chris Williams wrote an online guide to Overcoming Bulimia, an eight-module course developed by Media Innovations.

Dr Williams said: “The online resource capitalises on the motivation patients with bulimia have to combat their condition, which is at its highest when they visit their GP because it may have taken them many years to admit even to themselves that they have a problem.

“However, when patients are told they will have to wait months to see a psychologist, they will often lose this motivation and may start ignoring the problem again. Given the lack of CBT practitioners this results in many people with eating disorders struggling for years to overcome their condition.

“Having a resource that people can access immediately in their own time and in the privacy of their own home should help support them while waiting to see a psychologist or if they do not yet feel ready to seek professional help.

“We believe by offering online courses doctors could fill this gap between being seen by a specialist and give people the chance to make an immediate start on regaining control of their lives. It could prove a very effective way of supporting the existing stretched resources offering good value for money – and we hope to demonstrate this through our study.”

Previous independent studies with a small number of participants have produced mixed results, with the online course demonstrated to be effective but only if other support is provided – through email or over the phone, for example.

The new research will widen the study and attempt to provide more evidence of the efficacy of online self-help programmes as a cost-effective early stage treatment for bulimia and investigate which forms of support are most effective in aiding recovery.

Carrie-Anne said: “We would expect to see the group given immediate access to the self-help programme to show the quickest and greatest improvements, with the delayed treatment group responding at a lesser rate initially. If shown to be an effective means of helping people to recover more quickly from bulimia, more health boards may see the online programme as an effective treatment for this condition.”

The Overcoming Bulimia Online course is currently available through the website of beat, the eating disorders charity, or through Leeds-based software developer, Media Innovations.

Stephen Taylor-Parker, Managing Director of Media Innovations, said: “We have worked with Dr Williams and his team over the last eight years developing computer based CBT interventions for a wide range of mental disorders including depression, anxiety, bulimia and anorexia.

“These on-line interventions provide sufferers and their carers with effective support tools which can be used discreetly in the users own home, at any time to suit them. Forums are available on the websites where individuals are seen to exchange ideas and mutual support. We have had extremely positive feedback from many users who have successfully completed the eight-session online bulimia course, with reports that the CBT skills that they have learnt have helped them gain remission from their symptoms.”

Anyone interested in taking part in the study should contact the research team by emailing or calling 0141 211 0646.

For more information, contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email

For more information about bulimia and eating disorders, visit

First published: 24 February 2009