Is getting a disease diagnosis a curse or a blessing? A new study out Monday in the journal Pediatrics has found that for parents of infants with a particular problem, it's seen as a blessing – and one step closer to a prescription for medicine.
When parents of fussy babies who spit up and cry are told that their infant has gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, they are more likely to want medicine for it, according to a Reuters report on the study.
There are two troubling issues here. First, most babies with these problems don't actually have acid reflux and the condition may be being overdiagnosed, according to Reuters. An invasive test is necessary for a 100-per-cent accurate diagnosis.
Second, parents ask for medicine recommendations even when they're told that it may not work, Reuters reports.
"Roughly 50 per cent of babies during the first six months are spitting up enough to bother their parents," Dr. William Carey from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia told Reuters. He wrote a commentary published Monday with the new study.
"I never offered medication for a kid who was just spitting up and gaining weight well and happy," he told Reuters Health. "I could confidently tell the mother, 'Look, it's going to be a nuisance until about six months, and then it's gradually going to get better.' It's an irritating variation of normal."
The study surveyed 175 parents about a hypothetical scenario in which their one-month-old spitting up and crying. Parents given the diagnosis were interested in medication even when told it was ineffective. But parents asked to imagine a scenario in which they were not given a diagnosis were interested in medication only when its effectiveness was not discussed – and thus assumed to be effective.
"It shows how these kinds of labels can influence how people respond to symptoms," study co-author Laura Scherer of the University of Missouri in Columbia told Reuters Health. "Words can make an otherwise normal process seem like something that requires medical intervention."
Carey compared what's happening with GERD symptoms with the rising number of very active kids being diagnosed with and treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"Parents need to know that there are some annoying or insignificant variations of normal which one really needs to just put up with and not treat as a disease," he said. "Be darn sure that there is an abnormality before treating it as such."
That reference touches on one of the hottest-button issues in parenting, concerns regarding the overmedicalization of normal childhood behaviours, especially with the new DSM-5 (The American Psychiatric Association's latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) on the way.
But for parents with children who are struggling, especially with apparent learning disorders and autism spectrum disorders, achieving a diagnosis – even when it sparks debate – may make it easier to find medical and educational direction and help.
So, what's the right balance for a parent to strike between obsessing and advocating?