We live in a world of self-diagnosis. With access to online medical databases like WebMD and kidshealth.org, it is easy to type symptoms into Google, find a diagnosis and present findings to the family physician.
Self diagnosis may seem harmless, but it can become problematic when we diagnose ourselves or our children with more complicated conditions, behavioural disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The over-diagnosis of ADHD and the over-prescription of medications like Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyvanse (to name a few) have been longstanding problems in the health care community. Clinical psychologists Silvia Schneider, Jurgen Margraf, and Katrin Bruchmuller, on faculty at the University of Bochum and the University of Basel found that mental health workers such as psychiatrists tend to diagnose based on “a rule of thumb.” That is, children and adolescents -often males- are diagnosed with ADHD based on criteria such as “motoric restlessness, lack of concentration and impulsiveness,” rather than adhering to more comprehensive diagnostic criteria.
Parents’ motivation to get help for their child’s problems along with free access to online information may play a role in the over-diagnosis of ADHD.
A study by Anne Walsh, a professor of Nursing at Queensland University of Technology found that close to 43% of parents diagnosed and 33% treated their children’s health using online information. Of concern, 18% of parents actually altered their child’s professional health management to correspond with online information. Considering the questionable quality of some online health information, these numbers are worrisome.
Furthermore, as primary caregivers can sometimes be persuasive, it is possible that parental conviction of the child’s diagnosis may play a role in physician decisions to treat. With basic diagnostic criteria for ADHD readily available online, some parents may be quick to self-diagnose their “restless and impulsive child.”
“It sometimes happens that parents come to me convinced that their child has ADHD [based on their own research] and in many circumstances they are correct,” says Dan Flanders, a paediatrician practicing in Toronto, Canada.
According to Flanders, there are certain traits that make a child more likely to be misdiagnosed with ADHD. “Children who have learning disabilities, hearing impairment, or visual impairment may be mistaken as having ADHD because it is harder for them to focus if they can’t see the blackboard, hear their teacher or if they simply cannot read their homework.”
Flanders adds that gifted children, children with anxiety or depression, and children with sleep disorders are commonly misdiagnosed with attention disorders. “Gifted children learn the class objectives after the first 10 minutes of a class whereas their classmates need the whole hour. For the remaining 50 minutes of class these children get bored, fidgety, distracted, and disruptive. The treatment for these children is to enrich their learning environment so that they are kept engaged by the additional school materials.”
Children with anxiety and depression can be misdiagnosed with ADHD because there may be an interference with a child’s ability to learn, focus, eat, sleep, and interact with others. For children with sleep disorders, “one of the most common presentations of sleep disorders is hyperactivity and an inability to focus during the day. Fix the sleep problem and the ADHD symptoms go away.”
It is, however, important to note that these disorders are not mutually exclusive of each other. “A child can have a learning disability, anxiety, and independent ADHD all at the same time.”
While it is often beneficial for parents to consult online databases for background information, Flanders warns against relying solely on information found online because the information may not be up-to-date and cannot replace a thorough psychological assessment.
Why, then, do parents resort to this quick fix of information?
Walsh reported that parents use online health information for a range of reasons including feeling rushed and receiving limited general lifestyle guidance from their doctors.
Flanders points out that the doctor’s approach should always be to review the data honestly and objectively with parents and then openly present the treatment options available to them.
“The most important part of ADHD treatment is making sure of the diagnosis. There are so many children who are started on medication inappropriately. Throwing medication at the problem is not the answer unless the diagnosis is well established and the differential diagnoses have been exhausted.”
– Jana Vigor, Contributing Writer