ADHD diagnoses in children surge, but experts say over-diagnosing isn’t the problem
According to a new study, more than 10 percent of American children have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), indicating a huge surge in diagnoses over the past 20 years.
What the study didn’t find, however, was evidence of rampant over-diagnosing or misdiagnosing as some experts have suggested is occurring.
Instead, the researchers from the University of Iowa College of Public Health believe the dramatic increase in ADHD diagnoses may be the result of more widespread health care access and mental-health treatment related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That may explain why the rise was most significant among minority groups.
America has consistently had significantly higher rates of childhood ADHD compared to the rest of the world. This has led many to suggest Americans may be over-diagnosing children and attributing childhood behaviors to mental illness. Based on their findings, however, lead researcher Wei Bao says this isn’t the case.
“I don’t think overdiagnosis is the main issue,” he said.
When reviewing the data collected in the study, the researchers say the most obvious factors contributing to increasing diagnosis rates are a combination of better understanding and awareness of the disorder, improving standards for diagnosis, and more access to health care through the ACA.
Due to the implementation of the ACA, “some low-income families have improved access to services and referrals,” explained Bao, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
In the study, the team reviewed data from the National Health Interview Survey, an annual federal survey of approximately 35,000 households. According to the report published in JAMA Network, the survey found a steady increase in diagnoses from 1997 to 2016. At the outset of the study, approximately 6 percent of children were diagnosed with ADHD between 1997 and 1998. By 2016, the rate had increased to more than 10 percent of children.
While this overall increase is concerning, the shift is much clearer when broken down by ethnicity. During the late 1990’s, approximately 7 percent of non-Hispanic white children, 5 percent of non-Hispanic black children, and 4 percent of Hispanic children were diagnosed with ADHD.
By 2016, the survey found that these rates had increased to 12 percent of white children, 13 percent of black children, and 6 percent of Hispanic children.
The study also found a sizable increase in the number of girls diagnosed with ADHD over the past 20 years, which the team believes is partially attributed to changes in how ADHD is diagnosed.