Monday, January 29, 2007

Symptom-based diagnostic models

You enter your physician’s office holding your head from a throbbing headache. The nurse cordially smiles at you and takes you to an examining room. Minutes later (hey… this is my dream… I can keep the wait short)… the physician enters the office. You inform him or her that you have a headache. Your physician gives you a long look, sighs then pronounces the diagnosis “You have a headache disorder!” Nonplussed, huh? Thinking that perhaps its not too late to get your co-payment back?

Unfortunately, each day millions of parents take their child into offices of physicians, psychologists, therapists, etc. proclaiming that their child has a deficit in attention and is hyperactive and are told by well-meaning professionals, “Your children has an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder!” Nonplussed? I hope so. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a symptom-based diagnosis much like a “headache disorder” would be a symptom-based diagnosis. The unfortunate aspect of this scenario is that labeling the symptom (ie., “headache disorder”) does not explain the underlying cause or etiology of the symptom. Headaches are non-specific symptoms and may be related to underlying etiologies ranging from muscle tension, cervical neck strain, migraines, cluster headaches, increased intracranial pressure, hemorrhagic strokes to brain to tumors. As a patient-consumer you (and your physician) want to know the underlying cause of the headache so that subsequent treatment may be directed towards the cause, not simply the symptom, of the headache. Similarly, inattention, distractibility, off-task behaviors, restlessness, etc. are non-specific symptoms. A review of the DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – IV Text Revision) and other diagnostic manuals reveals that this cluster of symptoms is consistent with multiple diagnoses ranging from anxiety, depression, Tourette’s Syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, neurologic disorders, pervasive developmental disorders to learning disabilities.

The unfortunate effects of this symptom-based diagnostic model of “ADHD” include: (a) the simplistic labeling of symptoms (ADHD) with resulting termination of the search for an underlying cause, (b) evaluations that are limited to symptom counting, (c) a delay in the development of effective intervention plans among children with more pervasive developmental disorders or other deficits, (d) utilization of the child’s response to medication as a tool for confirming the accuracy of the diagnosis and (e) the “mis-diagnosis” of children with resulting public perceptions that oftentimes effective medications (ie., psychostimulants) are of no value or counter-productive. The solution… hmmm…

See you next week.

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