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Calling a Problem a "Disease" Increases Parents' Wish for Medications

4/1/2013 For Release: April 1, 2013

​​​​​​​​​Simply labeling an otherwise healthy infant as having a “disease” made parents more interested in giving their child medication, even when they were told drugs were ineffective, according to a study in the May 2013 Pediatrics. The study, “Influence of ‘GERD’ Label on Parents’ Decision to Medicate Infants” (published online April 1), surveyed parents coming into a pediatric clinic in Michigan about how they would respond to a hypothetical clinical scenario describing an infant who cries and spits up excessively but is otherwise healthy. Parents were randomly assigned to receive one of four vignettes. In some vignettes, the doctor gave a diagnosis of gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD); in others the doctor did not provide a disease label. Additionally, half the parents were told that existing medications are probably ineffective; the rest were not given information about medication effectiveness. Parents who received a GERD diagnosis were interested in medicating their infant, even when told that medications were ineffective. Parents not given a disease label were interested in a prescription only when the doctor did not discuss whether the medication was effective. The authors conclude that disease labels, such as GERD, and information about medication ineffectiveness can strongly influence parents’ interest in medications. There is a growing concern that GERD is overdiagnosed and overtreated in infants. This study suggests physicians can reduce interest in medications by not labeling the symptoms as GERD and by explaining to parents that acid reflux medications are not effective, study authors say.

Editor’s Note:  A related commentary, “The Hazards of Medicalizing Variants of Normal,” will also be published April 1.

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