Overdiagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Scoping Review | Adolescent Medicine | JAMA Network Open | JAMA Network
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    Original Investigation
    April 12, 2021

    Overdiagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Scoping Review

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Sydney School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
    • 2Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
    JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(4):e215335. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.5335
    Key Points

    Question  Is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) overdiagnosed in children and adolescents?

    Findings  In this systematic scoping review of 334 published studies in children and adolescents, convincing evidence was found that ADHD is overdiagnosed in children and adolescents. For individuals with milder symptoms in particular, the harms associated with an ADHD diagnosis may often outweigh the benefits.

    Meaning  This finding suggests that high-quality studies on the long-term benefits and harms of diagnosing and treating ADHD for youths with milder or borderline symptoms are needed to inform safe and equitable practice and policy.


    Importance  Reported increases in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses are accompanied by growing debate about the underlying factors. Although overdiagnosis is often suggested, no comprehensive evaluation of evidence for or against overdiagnosis has ever been undertaken and is urgently needed to enable evidence-based, patient-centered diagnosis and treatment of ADHD in contemporary health services.

    Objective  To systematically identify, appraise, and synthesize the evidence on overdiagnosis of ADHD in children and adolescents using a published 5-question framework for detecting overdiagnosis in noncancer conditions.

    Evidence Review  This systematic scoping review adhered to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) Extension for Scoping Reviews and Joanna Briggs Methodology, including the PRISMA-ScR Checklist. MEDLINE, Embase, PsychINFO, and the Cochrane Library databases were searched for studies published in English between January 1, 1979, and August 21, 2020. Studies of children and adolescents (aged ≤18 years) with ADHD that focused on overdiagnosis plus studies that could be mapped to 1 or more framework question were included. Two researchers independently reviewed all abstracts and full-text articles, and all included studies were assessed for quality.

    Findings  Of the 12 267 potentially relevant studies retrieved, 334 (2.7%) were included. Of the 334 studies, 61 (18.3%) were secondary and 273 (81.7%) were primary research articles. Substantial evidence of a reservoir of ADHD was found in 104 studies, providing a potential for diagnoses to increase (question 1). Evidence that actual ADHD diagnosis had increased was found in 45 studies (question 2). Twenty-five studies showed that these additional cases may be on the milder end of the ADHD spectrum (question 3), and 83 studies showed that pharmacological treatment of ADHD was increasing (question 4). A total of 151 studies reported on outcomes of diagnosis and pharmacological treatment (question 5). However, only 5 studies evaluated the critical issue of benefits and harms among the additional, milder cases. These studies supported a hypothesis of diminishing returns in which the harms may outweigh the benefits for youths with milder symptoms.

    Conclusions and Relevance  This review found evidence of ADHD overdiagnosis and overtreatment in children and adolescents. Evidence gaps remain and future research is needed, in particular research on the long-term benefits and harms of diagnosing and treating ADHD in youths with milder symptoms; therefore, practitioners should be mindful of these knowledge gaps, especially when identifying these individuals and to ensure safe and equitable practice and policy.