Receiving "disease" diagnosis may make a parent more likely to want unnecessary medication

Doctors who label common conditions as a "disease" may prompt parents to seek unnecessary medication.

A new study published online on April 1 in Pediatrics revealed that medications used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are some of the most common treatments given to children under the age of 1.

GERD's symptoms include crying and spitting up, which happens to about 50 percent of children during the first six months of their lives, according to commentary published alongside the study. Researchers found that when doctors called the collection of symptoms GERD, parents were more likely to ask for medication even when they were told that the treatment would be ineffective.

"The disease label seems to send the message that there is an illness that requires medical treatment," lead author Laura Scherer, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, told HealthDay. "But, depending on the situation, medical treatments may be necessary, or not. In the case of GERD, an otherwise healthy infant probably will not benefit from medication. So in this case [that] label can be misleading."

Researchers surveyed 175 parents of children under the age of 18 between May 2011 and February 2012 at the University of Michigan. Parents were asked about one of four scenarios in which their child's symptoms were given the GERD "disease" label, or no label, and they were either told that medication would be ineffective or given no information about it.

Parents who were given the scenario where their child had a GERD diagnosis still wanted to treat their children with medication, even if they were told it would be ineffective. Out of a scale of 0 to 5 with 5 being the highest, they rated their interest of receiving medication in this scenario a 2.5.

However, parents who were not given a label and were told the medication would not work only expressed a 1.5 on the scale when asked if they would still want treatment.

In addition, the parents were asked if their child had received a GERD diagnosis. Thirty-seven parents (21 percent) said that 1 or more of their children had been labeled with the disease, and 26 of them had given their child medication because of the diagnosis.

"As doctors we need to appreciate that the words we use when talking with patients and parents have power - the power to make a normal process seem like a disease. As pediatricians, our job is to make sick children healthy, not to make healthy children sick," author Dr. Beth Tarini, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and communicable diseases at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan, said in a press release.

Dr. William Carey, an attending physician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who wrote the accompanying commentary, told Reuters that the number of kids receiving GERD diagnosis was similar to the phenomenon of the rising number of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. He added that parents should know that some behaviors that are slightly "annoying or insignificant variations of normal" should just be tolerated and do not need medication.

"I never offered medication for a kid who was just spitting up and gaining weight well and happy," he said. "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."