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TV Doctor Explains ADHD Increase: Schools Unchanging for 150 Years

Tingley-021 colorDr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical correspondent for NBC news, responded last week on the Today show to the New York Times report that diagnoses of ADHD is on the rise.  Now nearly 11% of school-aged children – one in five high school boys – have received the medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity diagnosis according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Snyderman said that she believed that the rapid increase of the diagnosis could be attributed in part to under-diagnosing in earlier years.  She also said that if techniques to diagnose ADHD are carefully implemented by doctors and school people, the diagnosis is generally accurate. 

Then the interviewer asked her if it was possible that some of the kids diagnosed were really just typically active boys in school that teachers didn’t want to deal with.  Snyderman responded,  “I’m one of those parents.  I’ve been down this road. We have a school system that hasn’t changed in 150 years.  We don’t have recess. There’s no experiential learning; it’s ‘sit down in your seats and learn.’” 

Excuse me?  I admit that some teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, require students to conform to arbitrary rules that often don’t recognize that kids need a certain amount of physical activity.  Also, increasing numbers of parents have basically abdicated the role of the boundary-setting adult when it comes to instilling a modicum of self-discipline in their kids.  Still, neither of these issues entirely explains the startling rise in ADHD diagnoses.

Today an estimated 6.4 million children aged 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point.  That’s an increase of 16% since 2007 and a 53% increase in the past ten years.  Two-thirds of these children take some kind of prescription drug for the condition – usually Adderall or Ritalin. 

Historically, 3-7% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD.   Snyderman insists that the tests are accurate if done correctly, but the process is subjective and includes observations of the child and ADHD_meds_1interviews with parents and teachers.  The incidence of ADHD varies widely by states.  Several southern states indicate that about 23% of school-aged boys have received an ADHD diagnosis.  Rates in Nevada and Colorado were less than 10%.  Is the difference rigorous testing, more tolerant teachers, better parenting, or the drinking water?

Snyderman says she supports “Big Pharma” when it comes to prescribing drugs for ADHD.  Others say that advertising for ADHD drugs encourages parents to look for the diagnosis as a way to help their child in school.  Last October I wrote about physicians who work with children in low-wealth schools and regularly prescribe Adderall or other drugs in a misguided attempt to make kids less aggressive in school so they can stay out of trouble and get better grades.  One physician in Georgia’s Cherokee County said he believes that ADHD is “made up,” but as a “social justice thinker” he prescribes Adderall to improve poor academic performance.  CDC data indicates that children covered by Medicaid have the highest rate of ADHD diagnosis, roughly one-third higher than the general population.

All of this leaves me wishing that Snyderman had been more judicious in her comments.  Instead, she presented her opinions about kids, schools, and the unsettling rise of the ADHD diagnosis as if they were fact.  Sometimes, with TV doctors, the average viewer can’t tell the difference.




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