Kids in Foster Care Get Psychotropics at 'Alarming Rates'

Jake Remaly

October 15, 2021

Children in foster care are far more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medication, compared with children who are not in foster care, an analysis of Medicaid claims data shows.

Different rates of mental health disorders in these groups do not fully explain the "alarming trend," which persists across psychotropic medication classes, said study author Rachael J. Keefe, MD, MPH.

Misdiagnosis, overprescribing, and frequent transitions to new doctors may contribute to this phenomenon, doctors suggested.

Keefe, with Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, and colleagues analyzed Medicaid claims data from two managed care organizations to compare the prevalence of psychotropic medication use among children in foster care versus children insured by Medicaid but not in foster care. The study focused on claims from the same region in southeast Texas between July 2014 and June 2016.

The researchers included 388,914 children in Medicaid and 8,426 children in foster care in their analysis. They excluded children with a seizure or epilepsy diagnosis.

About 8% of children not in foster care received psychotropic medications, compared with 35% of those in foster care.

Children in foster care were 27 times more likely to receive antipsychotic medication (21.2% of children in foster care vs. 0.8% of children not in foster care) and twice as likely to receive antianxiety medication (6% vs. 3%).

For children in foster care, the rate of alpha-agonist use was 15 times higher, the rate of antidepressant use was 13 times higher, the rate of mood stabilizer use was 26 times higher, and the rate of stimulant use was 6 times higher.

The researchers have a limited understanding of the full context in which these medications were prescribed, and psychotropic medications have a role in the treatment of children in foster care, Keefe acknowledged.

"We have to be careful not to have a knee-jerk reaction" and inappropriately withhold medication from children in foster care, she said in an interview.

But overprescribing has been a concern. Keefe leads a foster care clinical service at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

"The overprescribing of psychotropic medications to children in foster care is something I feel every day in my clinical practice, but it's different to see it on paper," Keefe said in a news release highlighting the research, which she presented on Oct. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It's especially shocking to see these dramatic differences in children of preschool and elementary age."

Misdiagnosis can be a common problem among children in foster care, said Danielle Shaw, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Camarillo, Calif., during a question-and-answer period following the presentation.

"I see incorrect diagnoses very frequently," Shaw said. "The history of trauma or [adverse childhood experiences] is not even included in the assessment. Mood lability from trauma is misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, despite not meeting criteria. This will justify the use of antipsychotic medication and mood stabilizers. Flashbacks can be mistaken for a psychotic disorder, which again justifies the use of antipsychotic medication."

Children in foster care have experienced numerous traumatic experiences that affect brain development and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, Keefe said.

"Although from previous research we know that children in foster care are more likely to carry mental health and developmental disorder diagnoses, this does not account for the significant difference in prescribing practices in this population," Keefe said in an interview.

Although the study focused on data in Texas, Keefe expects similar patterns exist in other regions, based on anecdotal reports. "I work with foster care pediatricians across the country, and many have seen similar concerning trends within their own clinical practices," she said.

The use of appropriate therapies, minimizing transitions between providers, improved record keeping, the development of deprescribing algorithms, and placement of children in foster care in long-term homes as early as possible are measures that potentially could reduce inappropriate psychotropic prescribing for children in foster care, Keefe suggested.

The research was funded by a Texas Medical Center Health Policy Research Grant. The study authors and Shaw had no relevant financial disclosures.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2021 National Conference

This article originally appeared on MDEdge.com.

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