ADHD: Overdiagnosed and overtreated, or misdiagnosed and mistreated?

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In today’s changing medical climate, physicians need to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) better and more cost-effectively. The authors review recommendations supported by recent research and offer simple practices that integrate medicine and behavioral health for patients with ADHD.


  • Despite concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment, many children and youth diagnosed with ADHD still receive no treatment or insufficient treatment.
  • Today, more children are prescribed drug therapy when ADHD is diagnosed, but the initial titration of medication is often done without sufficient physician supervision.
  • ADHD symptoms improve with drug therapy, but improvement is inconsistently sustained due to poor treatment adherence.
  • Drug therapy and behavioral therapy work together. Outcomes can be determined by measuring both improved behaviors and reduced symptoms.



Pharmacotherapy and behavioral therapy are currently used with success in treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, adolescents, and adults. Ongoing changes in healthcare require physicians to improve the quality of care, reduce costs of treatment, and manage their patients’ health, not just their illnesses. Behavioral and pharmacologic studies provide us with an opportunity to maximize treatment of ADHD and adapt it to the needs of individuals.

This article identifies common problems in treating ADHD, discusses limits of care in pharmacotherapy and behavioral intervention, and offers practical recommendations for treating ADHD in the changing world of healthcare.


The Affordable Care Act of 2010 sought to transform medical care in the United States from procedures to performance, from acute episodes of illness to integrated care across the lifespan, and from inefficient care to efficient and affordable care with measurable outcomes. At the time of this writing, nobody knows whether the Affordable Care Act will survive, but these are still good goals. Because ADHD is the most common behavioral disorder of childhood, value-based care is essential.1


The prevalence of ADHD increased 42% from 2003 to 2011,2 with increases in nearly all demographic groups in the United States regardless of race, sex, and socioeconomic status. More than 1 in 10 school-age children (11%) in the United States now meet the criteria for the diagnosis of ADHD; among adolescents, 1 in 5 high school boys and 1 in 11 high school girls meet the criteria.2

Rates vary among states, from a low of 4.2% for children ages 4 to 17 in Nevada to a high of 14.6% in Arkansas.3 Worldwide estimates of ADHD prevalence range from 2.2% to 17.8%,4 with the most recent meta-analysis for North America and Europe indicating a 7.2% worldwide prevalence in people age 18 and younger.5

Such data have sparked criticism, with some saying that ADHD is overdiagnosed, others saying it is underdiagnosed, and most agreeing that it is misdiagnosed.

Changing definitions of ADHD may have had a small effect on the increase in prevalence,6 but the change is more likely a result of heightened awareness and recognition of symptoms. Even so, guidelines for diagnosing ADHD are still not rigorously applied, contributing to misdiagnosis. For example, in a study of 50 pediatric practices, only half of clinicians said they followed diagnostic guidelines to determine symptom criteria from at least 2 sources and across 2 settings, yet nearly all (93%) reported immediately prescribing medications for treatment.7

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition,8 requires evidence of a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity, or both, with a severity that interferes with developmental functioning in 2 or more settings; was present before age 12; and cannot be accounted for by another behavioral health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. The diagnosis should document the presence of at least 6 of 9 symptoms of inattention (or 5 symptoms for teens age 17 or older), or at least 6 of 9 symptoms of hyperactive/impulsive behavior (5 symptoms for teens age 17 and older). Symptoms are best documented when reported by at least 2 observers.


ADHD is expensive to society. National yearly healthcare costs have ranged from $143 billion to $266 billion,9 with over half this amount assumed directly by families.10 Even in previous decades when prevalence rates hovered around 5%, the cost of workday loss in the United States was high for adult patients and for parents of young children with ADHD needing to take time off from work for doctors’ visits.11 Projections across 10 countries indicated that adults with ADHD lost more workdays than did workers without ADHD.12

There is also a trend toward visits that are more expensive. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of visits for ADHD to psychiatrists rose from 24% to 36%, while the number of less-costly visits to pediatricians decreased from 54% to 47%.13

Thus, over the past 15 years, symptoms of ADHD have become more readily recognized, prevalence rates in the population have increased significantly, and associated costs have increased dramatically, with costs extending beyond individual impairment to a loss of productivity at the workplace. And treatment, typically with drugs, has been used without sufficient application of current diagnostic criteria. What impact does this have on the practicing physician?


Stimulants are considered the standard of medical care for the symptoms of ADHD, according to the 2011 practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics.14 They are efficacious and cost-effective when optimal dosing is achieved, since the patient usually manages treatment independently, requiring minimal physician input in the months and years after successful titration.

For these reasons, the use of stimulants to treat ADHD has increased dramatically in the last decade. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, as a result of an increase in parent-reported ADHD, more US children were receiving medical treatment for the disorder in 2011 than in any previous year reported, and the prevalence of pharmacotherapy in children ages 14 to 17 increased 28% over the 4 years from 2007 to 2011.2

Dr. Keith Conners, an early advocate for recognition of ADHD, has called the staggering increase in the rates of diagnosis and drug treatment a “national disaster of dangerous proportions.”15 Nevertheless, many children and families have benefited in a cost-effective manner.


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