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Behind the Scenes Look at ADHD Treatment

Posted by Claudia M Gold  March 13, 2012 09:49 AM

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Recently I went to a talk given by a local "ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) expert" to a group of primary care pediatricians. The aim of the talk was to guide these practitioners in doing "ADHD evals" given the time constraints of primary care practice.

"Its all about the rating scales," he said. "You need to train your staff to give out the right scales. The key to working kids up is getting the scales done ahead of time. Nothing happens in the office."

This doctor proudly displayed his version of the main rating scale, the Vanderbilt, which he has divided into two time slots, because "kids have different symptoms at different times of day." Evaluation and treatment of ADHD consists primarily of scoring rating scales, making a decision to use medication, and once the decision is made, having follow-up visits every three months to adjust medication dose according to symptoms and side effects.

One pediatrician, someone for whom I have great respect as a clinician, was alarmed about a 5-year-old who was placed on a very high dose of medication by another doctor. When I asked her what was going on in the child's life that might cause him to have so much trouble, she didn't know. She had changed the medication, which did in fact improve the child's symptoms. Her approach is the standard of care in pediatrics.

In other areas of medicine, we treat the underlying cause, not just the symptom. In treating bacterial pneumonia, for example, we use an antibiotic, not a cough suppressant. The Vanderbilt lists symptoms of problems with regulation of behavior, emotions, and attention, which together may be labeled as ADHD. The question should be not “How do we control the symptoms?” but rather “What is making self-regulation difficult for this particular child?” followed by “What can we do to help promote self-regulation?”

Recently I saw several children who had been diagnosed with ADHD but medication "didn't work". One mother told me about her own struggles with untreated depression. Another child spent weekends with an actively drinking alcoholic father. A third child quietly spoke with her mother of being frightened when she pulled her hair and hit her.

Nowhere on these rating scales does it ask about family history or life stressors. According to the current standard of care it is possible to diagnose and treat ADHD without ever learning about any of this history. Detailed family history (see previous post), as is well described in the book A Lethal Inheritence, is essential to diagnostic evaluation. In addition, detailed early developmental history may reveal significant sensory processing problems that have been unrecognized.

When I have written about ADHD in the past, I usually get a number of angry responses from parents who say everything is fine in their family and I shouldn't blame them for the problem. In my experience, about 10 % of kids have what I refer to as "straightforward ADHD." They have symptoms and an extensive family history of inattention and/or hyperactivity with no other issues. If you are in that 10%, this blog post is not about you.

Giving a list of therapists does not solve the problem, because the child is usually the "identified patient." Family therapy can be an important component of treatment when a child struggling with self-regulation, as is well described in the recent book, Suffer the Children: The Case against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative. Furthermore, once a child is placed on medication, his behavior is "better" for the short term and the motivation to do the more challenging, time intensive work to uncover the cause is lost.

The term "ADHD eval" implies only two options- a child does or does not have ADHD. It leaves no room for curiousity about the meaning of behavior. Then there is the term "co-morbidity." This simply offers the opportunity for more labels without exploring the cause of symptoms.

There is a reason why, as one of the pediatricians at this presentation bemoaned, a parent may say, "by the way" just when when a doctor has his hand on the doorknob to leave. It takes time to develop sense of safety and trust to be able to say what's really important.

Fortunately I work in a practice that is open to a different approach. Here are some initial changes I propose:

1) Schedule the visit as "evaluation of problem of attention, behavior and emotion," or more simply "behavior problem,"rather than "ADHD eval"

2) Have a minimum of two 50 minute visits for an evaluation

3) See parents alone without the child for the first visit. Aim to include both parents whenever possible

4) Goal of initial evaluation is to get detailed family and social history, and to offer parents an opportunity to be heard. Very often the parent and/or couple need support and possibly referral

5) Medication may be considered for an older child if he is unable to learn or function in a social environment without it. Equal attention must be given to other interventions, including addressing diet, sleep, and physical activity
Such an approach involves a change in expectation on the part of parents, teachers and clinicians. Parents are often under tremendous pressure from teachers to get a prescription for medication.

Stanley Greenspan's book Overcoming ADHD: Helping Your Child Become Calm, Engaged, and Focused--Without a Pill offers an excellent holistic approach that is founded in quality scientific research. One key component of his treatment is to support "reflective thinking." This involves helping a child to recognize both his strengths and challenges, and to develop strategies to manage his own unique vulnerabilities.

"We don"t have time" is not an acceptable answer. Changes must be made in our healthcare system to insure better reimursement for time spent listening in this way, and to improve access to quality mental health care services.

This is child's life we are talking about. If the root cause of the problem is not addressed, there may be years of medication adjustment until something bad happens- car accident, school failure, violent crime, prison. If I sound alarmist, it is because I am alarmed. The current standard of care of ADHD treatment, particularly now that diagnosis is extended down to age 4, effectively silences huge numbers of children. We need to give these children a voice.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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