From the Journals

Asian children less likely to receive ADHD treatment



A study of U.S. children across ethnic and racial groups found that Asians were least likely to receive therapy for ADHD, compared with White children – who had the highest odds of getting some kind of treatment over other groups.

Other studies have identified disparity problems in ADHD diagnosis, although results have varied on inequality metrics. Few studies have looked at Asians separately, according to the study’s lead author, Yu Shi, MD, MPH. “They were usually just classified as ‘other’ or as non-White,” Dr. Shi, a consultant with the Mayo Clinic’s division of pediatric anesthesia in Rochester, Minn., said in an interview.

Disparities might stem from cultural and socioeconomic factors, and the way in which clinicians interpret behavior and apply diagnostic criteria.

“Further understanding of how treatment patterns for ADHD may differ based on race, at the time of initial diagnosis and in the early stages of treatment, may help all children receive appropriate evidence-based care,” Dr. Shi and colleagues reported in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers develop large birth cohort

Dr. Shi and colleagues hypothesized that non-Hispanic White children had a greater chance of getting diagnosed and treated within the first year of diagnosis than that of other ethnic and racial cohorts. Using administrative claims data with socioeconomic status information from a national commercial insurance warehouse, they constructed a retrospective birth cohort of children born between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2012. The children had continuous insurance coverage for at least 4 years, and represented non-Hispanic Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Self-reporting identified the race/ethnicity groups.

Investigators analyzed ADHD diagnosis and treatment data on 238,011 children between October 2019 and December 2020, using a multivariate Cox regression model to adjust for sex, region, and household income. Primary and secondary outcomes included ADHD diagnosis as defined by recent ICD codes, ADHD behavior, and medication therapies in the clinical setting after initial diagnosis, respectively.

Whites made up most of the cohort (72.7%), followed by Hispanics (9.8%), Asians (6.7%), and Blacks (6.2%). Nearly half the population was female (48.8%). During the follow-up period with these children, 11,401, or 4.8%, had received an ADHD diagnosis. Mean age of diagnosis was 6.5 years, and overall incidence of ADHD was 69 per 10,000 person years (95% confidence interval, 68-70).

Pediatricians were most likely to make an ADHD diagnosis, although the study cited other clinicians, such as psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, and family practice clinicians, as responsible for these decisions.

Children diagnosed with ADHD had more years of coverage in the data set, and were more likely to be White and male. The Southern census region had a higher representation of diagnoses (50.6%) than did the Northeast region (11.8%).

Asians at highest odds for no treatment

Taking a closer look at race and ethnicity, Whites had the highest cumulative incidence of ADHD (14.19%), versus Asian children, who had lowest incidence (6.08%). “The curves for Black and Hispanic children were similar in shape and slightly lower than that for White children,” reported the investigators.

White children had higher odds of receiving some kind of treatment, compared with the other groups.

Incidence of medication treatment was lower among Asians and Hispanics. In a striking finding, Asians were most likely to receive no treatment at all (odds ratio compared with White children, 0.54; 95% confidence interval, 0.42-0.70). “However, the percentage of Asian children receiving psychotherapy was not significantly lower than other groups, which is different than a 2013 study finding that Asian children with ADHD were less likely to use mental health services,” they noted.

Most of the patients received medication (32.4%) in the first year after diagnosis, whereas (19.4%) received behavioral therapy only. Nineteen percent had both. More than 29% of these cases had no claims associated with either treatment. Among school-aged children, 65.5% were prescribed medications, compared with just 14.4% who received therapy. Twenty percent had no treatment.

Diagnosis with another disorder often preceded ADHD diagnosis. Results varied among racial groups. White children were more likely than were Black children to be diagnosed with an anxiety or adjustment disorder. Relative to White children, Asians were more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, speech sound disorders, or unspecified neurodevelopmental disorders. Even after an ADHD diagnosis, clinicians were more likely to diagnose Asian children with autism.

Parents may influence treatment decisions

Parental views and preferences may explain some of the variations in diagnosis and treatment among the racial/ethnic groups.

“In order for a diagnosis of ADHD to happen, a parent has first to recognize a problem and bring a child for clinical evaluation,” said Dr. Shi. “A certain behavior could be viewed as normal or a problem depending on a person’s cultural or racial background.” It’s unclear whether clinicians played any role in diagnosis disparities, he added. Patients’ concerns about racism might also influence the desire to get treated in health care systems.

Overall, the findings underscore the presence of racial and ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis and treatment. Future research should explore the underlying mechanisms, Dr. Shi suggested. While he and his colleagues have no immediate plans to do another ADHD study, “we’re planning on research to understand disparities in surgery in children,” he said.

The authors cited numerous limitations with their study. Use of ICD codes to identify cases might not have represented true clinical diagnosis, since the data were collected for billing, not research purposes. Investigators drew participants from a commercial insurance database, which did not necessarily reflect all U.S. children. The results might not represent a large number of children covered by Medicaid, for example, noted Dr. Shi. “It is more difficult to work with Medicaid data because there’s no national-level Medicaid data for research. Only state-level data is available.”

Because of other data gaps, Dr. Shi and colleagues might have underestimated the number of children in therapy.

A need for ‘culturally sensitive care’

The findings “ultimately demonstrate the need for culturally sensitive care in the diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents,” said Tiffani L. Bell, MD, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C., who was not involved with the study. She specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Dr. Tiffani L. Bell, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Dr. Tiffani L. Bell

The exact cause for racial disparity in diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is unknown and likely multifaceted, she continued. “It may be due to differences in the way that disruptive behaviors are interrupted based on factors such as race. This study found that Asian parents often brought their children in for evaluation for reasons other than ADHD. Concerns surrounding the stigma of mental health treatment and racism also could contribute to the disparity in diagnosis and treatment,” she said.

Dr. Bell said she hopes to see future studies that address the impact of social determinants of health on mental illness and investigate underlying causes that contribute to disparities in treatment and diagnosis.

The Mayo Clinic supported the study but had no role in its design or research methods. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

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