Clinicians Underprescribe Behavior Therapy for Preschool ADHD

Heidi Splete

November 02, 2021

The majority of families of preschool children with a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder were not offered behavior therapy as a first-line treatment, according to data from nearly 200 children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' current clinical practice guidelines recommend parent training in behavior management (PTBM) as a first-line treatment for children aged 4-5 years diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or symptoms of ADHD such as hyperactivity or impulsivity, but data on how well primary care providers follow this recommendation in practice are lacking, wrote Yair Bannett, MD, of Stanford (Calif.) University, and colleagues.

To investigate the rates of PTBM recommendations, the researchers reviewed electronic health records for 22,714 children aged 48-71 months who had at least two visits to any 1 of 10 primary care practices in a California pediatric health network between Oct. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2019. Children with an autism diagnosis were excluded; ADHD-related visits were identified via ADHD diagnosis codes or symptom-level diagnosis codes.

In the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, 192 children (1%) had either an ADHD diagnosis or ADHD symptoms; of these, 21 (11%) received referrals for PTBM during ADHD-related primary care visits. Records showed an additional 55 patients (29%) had a mention of counseling on PTBM by a primary care provider, including handouts.

PCPs prescribed ADHD medications for 32 children; 9 of these had documented PTBM recommendations, and in 4 cases, the PCPs recommended PTBM before prescribing a first medication.

A majority (73%) of the children were male, 64% were privately insured, 56% had subspecialists involved in their care, and 17% were prescribed ADHD medications (88% of which were stimulants).

In a multivariate analysis, children with public insurance were significantly less likely to receive a PTBM recommendation than were those with private insurance (adjusted relative risk 0.87).

The most common recommendation overall was routine/habit modifications (for 79 children), such as reducing sugar or adding supplements to the diet; improving sleep hygiene; and limiting screen time.

The low rates of PTBM among publicly insured patients in particular highlight the need to identify factors behind disparities in recommended treatments, the researchers noted.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the reliance on primary care provider documentation during the study period and the inclusion only of medical record reviews with diagnostic codes for ADHD, the researchers noted. Further studies beyond a single healthcare system are needed to assess generalizability, they added.

However, the results present an opportunity for primary care providers to improve adherence to clinical practice guidelines and establish behavioral treatment at an early age to mitigate long-term morbidity, they concluded.

Low Rates Highlight Barriers and Opportunities

"We were surprised to find very low rates of documented recommendations for behavioral treatment mentioned by PCPs," Bannett said in an interview. The researchers were surprised that recommendations for changes in daily routines and habits, such as reduced sugar intake, regular exercise, better sleep, and reduced screen time, were the most common recommendations for families of children presenting with symptoms of ADHD. "Though these are good recommendations that can support the general health of any young child, there is no evidence to support their benefit in alleviating symptoms of ADHD," he said.

Bannett acknowledged the challenge for pediatricians to stay current on where and how families can access this type of behavioral treatment, but the evidence supports behavior therapy over medication in preschool children, he said.

"I think that it is important for primary care clinicians to know that there are options for parent training in behavioral management for both privately and publicly insured patients," said Bannett. "In California, for example, parent training programs are offered through county mental health services. In some counties, there are other organizations that offer parent training for underserved populations and those with public insurance," he said.

Bannett noted that online treatments, including behavioral treatments, may be possible for some families.

He cited Triple P, an evidence-based curriculum for parent training in behavior management, which offers an online course for parents at, and an online parent training course offered through the CHADD website.

Bannett noted that the researchers are planning a follow-up study to investigate the reasons behind the low referral rates for PTBM. "A known barrier is the limited availability of therapists who can provide this type of therapy," Bannett said. "Research is needed on the effectiveness of online versions of parent training, which can overcome some of the access barriers many families experience," he added.

"Additionally, since behavioral treatment requires a significant effort on the part of the parents and caregivers, who often are not able to complete the therapy, there is a need for research on ways to enhance parent and family engagement and participation in these important evidence-based treatments," as well as a need to research ways to increase adherence to evidence-based practices, said Bannett. "We are currently planning intervention studies that will enhance primary care clinicians' knowledge and clinical practice; for example, decision support tools in the electronic health record, and up-to-date information about available resources and behavioral therapists in their community that they can share with families," he said.

Barriers Make It Difficult to Adhere to Guidelines

The study authors missed a significant element of the AAP guidelines by failing to acknowledge the extensive accompanying section on barriers to adoption, which details why most pediatricians in clinical practice do not prescribe PTBM, Herschel Lessin, MD, of Children's Medical Group, Poughkeepsie, NY, said in an interview.

"Academically, it is a wonderful article," said Lessin, who was a member of the authoring committee of the AAP guidelines and a major contributor to the section on barriers. The AAP guidelines recommend PTBM because it is evidence based, but the barrier section is essential to understanding that this evidence-based recommendation is nearly impossible to follow in real-world clinical practice, he emphasized.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' "Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents," published in October of 2019 in Pediatrics, included a full subsection on barriers as to why the guidelines might not be followed in many cases in a real-world setting, and the study authors failed to acknowledge this section and its implications, said Lessin. Notably, the barriers section was originally published in Pediatrics under a Supplemental Data tab that might easily be overlooked by someone reviewing the main practice guideline recommendations, he said.

In most areas of the country, PTBM is simply unavailable, Lessin said.

There is a dearth of mental health providers in the United States in general, and "a monstrous shortage of mental health practitioners for young children," he said. Children in underserved areas barely have access to a medical home, let alone mental health subspecialists, he added.

Even in areas where specialized behavior therapy may be available, it can be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest patients, Lessin noted. Insurance does not cover this type of behavior therapy, and most mental health professionals don't accept Medicaid, nor commercial insurance, he said.

"I don't even bother with those referrals, because they are not available," said Lessin. The take-home message is that most community-based pediatricians are not following the guidelines because the barriers are so enormous, he said.

The study was supported by a research grant from the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and salary support through the Instructor Support Program at the department of pediatrics, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, to Bannett. The researchers had no other financial conflicts to disclose. Lessin had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.

JAMA Pediatr. Published online October 18, 2021. Abstract

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