Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document a steady rise in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) since its first national survey in 1997. Since stimulant medications are widely considered to be first-line therapy for ADHD, it is not surprising that by 2011, more than 3.5 million U.S. children were taking these medications. Guidelines for ADHD, such as one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, prefer prescription drugs over behavioral interventions due in part to the results of an influential 1999 study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health that compared these treatments and declared drugs to be superior.
However, a recent article published in the New York Times reported that some of the original study investigators are now openly questioning this conclusion. Since the primary outcomes were short-term impulsivity and inattention symptoms, rather than academic and social outcomes that may be affected more by behavioral skills training, the study's design inherently favored drug therapies. And the manufacturers of these drugs were happy to promote the results to boost sales:
Just as new products ... were entering the market, a 2001 paper by several of the study’s researchers gave pharmaceutical companies tailor-made marketing material. For the first time, the researchers released data showing just how often each approach had moderated A.D.H.D. symptoms: Combination therapy did so in 68 percent of children, followed by medication alone (56 percent) and behavioral therapy alone (34 percent). Although combination therapy won by 12 percentage points, the paper’s authors described that as “small by conventional standards” and largely driven by medication. Drug companies ever since have reprinted that scorecard and interpretation in dozens of marketing materials and PowerPoint presentations. They became the lesson in doctor-education classes worldwide.
There are, of course, practical challenges to providing behavioral therapy for ADHD, including a lack of resources in many communities and high costs, which, unlike drug therapies, are often not paid by health insurance. One way family physicians may facilitate therapy is to integrate behavioral health specialists into their practices. Our AFP By Topic collection on ADHD reviews other issues that often come up in clinical practice, including cardiovascular risks of stimulant medications and managing ADHD in adults and preschool-age children.