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Study: A Simple, Cheap Way To Help Low-Income Kids With ADHD

Boston Medical Center (Wikimedia Commons)

Boston Medical Center (Wikimedia Commons)

Say you’re a pediatrician whose 8-year-old patient is showing symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That’s not unusual, up to 12 percent of American kids are diagnosed with it.

But you know that in general, ADHD treatment tends not to work as well in poor kids, like your patient, as it does in their better-off peers. And you also happen to know that the symptoms began two months after the patient’s father was incarcerated. It might be ADHD, or it might just be horrible stress. What do you do?

This is the kind of challenge that routinely faces pediatricians at Boston Medical Center, where most of their patients comes from the inner city, says Dr. Michael Silverstein, chief of the hospital’s division of General Academic Pediatrics.

In a study of 156 young patients just out in the journal Pediatrics, Silverstein and colleagues report some success with an experimental intervention they designed to address such challenging cases.

They found that with a relatively modest investment — about a week of training for a care manager that the patients’ families interact with anyway — they could “move the needle” on ADHD symptoms and social skills, he says.

I asked him to elaborate. First, the background:

General pediatricians tend to be fully equipped to treat straightforward cases of ADHD, Dr. Silverstein says, but for tougher cases like the one described above, and many among BMC’s population of vulnerable kids, they need specialists to address the more vexing issues. One proven model of providing that expertise is called “collaborative care.”

Providing care for low-income kids through mechanisms that address the health of both generations, parents and children.

The pediatrician is “driving the boat,” he says, but the specialists “essentially provide what we call ‘decision support.’ They say, ‘For someone like who you’re describing to me, I would try something like this.’ They give the rules of the road to the primary care doc, but the primary care doc drives.

And because it’s so hard to get busy people into the same room at the same time, the communication between the primary care doctor and the specialist is mediated through a ‘care manager’ intermediary.” (Ideally, a child psychiatrist would be right down the hallway, but that’s “pie in the sky” for under-resourced hospitals like the BMC, he notes.)

Research has shown that collaborative care works well, “but at BMC and places like it, this way of delivering care is probably necessary but not sufficient.” The reason? “A lot of kids with symptoms of ADHD don’t get better even when treated optimally. Why is that? You give them access to proper medication, the diagnosis is made properly, yet they don’t get better. And we homed in on three reasons that kids with ADHD symptoms may not get better that really were relevant to our population:

• The first is that we know that parents of children with ADHD have a disproportionate burden of mental illness themselves. You could imagine a child’s improvement trajectory might not be as good if his mother is depressed.

• Also, in general we see a guardedness about going to the doctor for behavioral problems — that’s not in everyone’s cultural frame of reference. So the idea of medication for inattention might not be where everyone is at. These are potentially stigmatizing conditions, so lots of times people recommend a course of action — medication or something else — but the families aren’t quite there.

• And the third reason is that we know that for certain children with ADHD, behavioral therapies work really well in addition to medication, but our families tend not to have access to those.

So we developed an intervention that was hung on the structure of collaborative care, where the care managers who serve as intermediaries between specialists and generalists are trained to address those three things. Continue reading