Methylphenidate Is Overprescribed to Children in France

Serge Cannasse

April 14, 2022

The prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is difficult to evaluate, and the diagnosis is based primarily on clinical criteria. In 2008, a French study estimated the prevalence to be between 3.5% and 5.6%, but the study's design was questionable.

Treatment of this disorder consists first and foremost in educational, social, and psychotherapeutic management. Only if such treatment fails is methylphenidate (MPH), the only drug that has been approved in France for this indication, to be considered, according to the recommendations.

The drug's short-term efficacy has been proven, but it has not shown any effect on the long-term risks for academic failure, delinquency, and drug addiction associated with ADHD. In contrast, its adverse effects are numerous. Cases of nervousness, sleep disorders, headaches, weight loss, risk for aggravation of psychiatric conditions, and progression to violent or suicidal behavior have all been documented extensively, as well as cases of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. Moreover, MPH is classified as a narcotic.

Inappropriate Prescribing Conditions

A study that appeared in the French journal of neuropsychiatry in minors, Neuropsychiatrie de l'Enfance et de l'Adolescence, investigated the prescribing procedures for this drug in France. Researchers examined Social Security data for 144,509 patients between the ages of 0 and 17 years who had received at least one prescription between 2010 and 2019. The researchers made the following observations about prescribing patterns and usage during this period:

  • New MPH prescriptions increased by 56% per year, and the total number of annual prescriptions increased by 116%. In 3- to 17-year-olds, the prevalence was estimated at 0.61% to 0.75% of the pediatric population in 2019. Boys accounted for most of this consumption (82.5% to 80.8% over this period).

  • In 2011, the median duration of consumption by children 6 years of age and older was 5.5 years. For 25% of those children, it was more than 8 years.

  • Contrary to the labeling, some prescriptions were written for children younger than 6 years.

  • Twenty-five percent of initial prescriptions and 50% of annual renewals were not written by a hospital specialist, in violation of the regulatory requirements in effect until September 13, 2021. On that date, the French National Authority for Health (HAS) decided that initial hospital prescription of MPH should end.

  • Eighty-four percent of children did not have any medical consultations at the prescribing hospital department in the 13 months after starting MPH. While the prevalence of ADHD has more than doubled, the number of consultations at specialist French medical, psychological, and educational centers for minors (CMPPs) is now less than a fourth of what it was — a drop from 4.1% to 0.8%.

  • The prescribing of MPH is not always associated with an ADHD diagnosis, even though ADHD is its only indication.

  • Of children and adolescents who use MPH, 22.8% received one or more other psychotropic drugs in the year following the initial prescription, including the following: neuroleptics (64.5%), anxiolytics (35.5%), antidepressants (16.2%), antiepileptics (11%), hypnotics (4.8%), and antiparkinsonian drugs (3%). "These co-prescriptions are often way off-label and are not within HAS recommendations," according to the authors.

  • For the youngest children in school classes (those born in December rather than in January), between 2010 and 2019, there was on average a 54% increased risk of being medicated.

  • In 2019, 21.7% of children who received MPH lived in families with Universal Health Coverage or a similar plan. Yet, according to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, only 7.8% of the French population had this type of assistance.

A Minority of Practitioners

The authors of this article state that "the distribution of consumption suggests a predominant role of a minority of practitioners and hospital departments in the prescription of methylphenidate." They note that "in European countries and in North America, the prescription rate of psychotropic drugs for ADHD has stabilized or shown a clear trend toward stabilization since 2008. The same cannot be said for France, where this rate is continuously increasing, so much so that in 2019 it reached a higher level than in other European countries like Great Britain." The reasons for this are disputed.

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