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Cost Effectiveness of ADHD Treatments

Posted Feb 10 2009 12:40pm
In the previous post on the economic impact of ADHD, we examined some of the eye-opening numbers attached to the disorder of ADHD and its impact on society. We reviewed 4-5 publications on the subject, most of which attached an annual price tag of several thousand dollars to the direct and indirect costs of the disorder on individuals with ADHD and their families. These factors included loss of productivity at work (which can be up to almost a full month of the year less than non-ADHD counterparts), medical expenses from the disorder itself, as well as from the increase in risk-taking behaviors of ADHD patients, additional educational expenses, loss of work time for family members, and the increased cost of treatment for substance abuse (which is also much higher in ADHD individuals).

It is important to take these numbers and figures with a grain of salt, and see them more as projections as opposed to actual hard, concrete figures. However, they should begin to give us at least a ballpark estimate of the economic impact that ADHD has on our society. The natural question which should flow from this information is: what is the actual cost of treating ADHD? While the treatment options for ADHD vary immensely from individual to individual and treatment to treatment, a study by Jensen and coworkers has sought to investigate the approximate cost-effectiveness of different ADHD treatments. A summary of this study can be found here. I will highlight some of the key points from the article:

  • Cost-effectiveness for ADHD treatment was studied in four different areas: medication treatment, behavioral management treatment, a combined medication/behavioral treatment, and community care-based treatment (this last one would include things like juvenile justice programs, community mental health services, etc) . These data were based off of an original 1999 study on children with ADHD called the MTA Cooperative Group.
  • Treatment "effectiveness" was determined by the ability of a particular treatment to bring a child's behavior to a "normal" level. An outcome of "normal" was determined by using a cutoff score determined by a special psychological scale called the SNAP scale, which assigns numbers to behavioral improvements in multiple categories, and is determined by parents, teachers and clinicians. Although somewhat subjective in nature, this scale has been a good indicator of tracking improvements with regards to the disorder of ADHD.
  • Different scenarios of ADHD with regards to comorbid (co-existing) disorders were also analyzed. These included both internalizing comorbid disorders (anxiety and depression), externalizing comorbid disorders (which include conduct disorders or oppositional behaviors), as well as a combination of both types of comorbid disorders.
  • Costs were determined by average consulting fees of psychiatrists, psychologists and behavioral therapists from the American Medical Association Socioeconomic monitoring system surveys, the approximate costs of prescription drugs based on wholesale prices and common markup values (often around 40%), and wages of behavioral support staffs.
  • Out of the different treatment methods available, medication alone provided the most bang for the buck, as far as the most cost-effective measures go. Behavioral therapy was found to be exceedingly costly in terms of its relative effectiveness, and in some cases, actually limited some of the improvements in the overall symptoms. Thus, from a strictly economic standpoint, medication treatment appears to win out as the most cost-effective treatment for ADHD.
  • Interestingly, it appears that for children with more internalizing ADHD comorbid symptoms (anxiety and depression), the behavioral treatments were not only more costly, but reduced the overall effectiveness of the medication treatment option, when compared to the medication option alone. This was a bit surprising, and suggests, that behavioral therapy should be considered more for externalizing symptoms (such as oppositional behavior or conduct problems) than for internalizing ones.
  • This report was not meant to knock the effectiveness of behavioral treatment for ADHD, it just sought to investigate the cost-effectiveness (or lack thereof) of this type of treatment. However, if cost is not a factor, a combined medication/behavioral treatment program led to much higher rates of "normalizing" childhood behaviors, especially in children who exhibited both internalizing and externalizing comorbid disorders. In other words, for children who have ADHD, anxiety or depression, as well as some type of oppositional behavior, combining medication with therapy can be much more effective than treatment via either medications or therapy alone.However, based on a cost-effectiveness model, for those on a tight budget or with limited resources, the medication treatment option still wins hands-down.
  • It is also important to note that community-based care programs, while largely inexpensive, often, unfortunately, have little effectiveness in treating ADHD with or without these side disorders, even though medication managements and behavioral measures are often utilized. This suggests the importance of specialization of professionals outside of basic community resources for dealing with and treating these disorders, which, unfortunately, often carries a heftier price tag. However, the approximate increase in costs of medication management alone (including the cost of a qualified diagnosing professional outside of the typical "community" environment), was relatively small in comparison to the community care model. This again, supports the evidence of the cost-effectiveness of a predominantly medication-based treatment.
  • The ineffectiveness of community-based care was explained in part by the relatively lower levels of dosing for medications as well as less follow up (community care physicians often followed up only twice per year in the study, while the individuals on the non-community care based medication treatment plan often got monthly visits).

I realize that some of these findings are confusing to interpret. There were sections of the paper which were difficult to follow at times, but I would just like to hammer home a few personal points with regards to my thoughts on the article:

  • Given the pinch most of us are feeling with the economic situation, we want to seek out the best treatments possible for the dollar. Based on this study, it appears that treatment with medication is by far the most cost-effective option.
  • If money (or insurance) is less of a problem, there are advantages to utilizing behavioral treatment methods for ADHD. However, based on the findings of the above study, it appears that behavioral treatment on its own is still largely cost-ineffective.
  • The one exception to the above point is if a child exhibits both internalizing (anxiety, depression) symptoms and externalizing symptoms (oppositional behaviors or conduct issues) along with his or her ADHD symptoms. It appears that, based on the results of the study listed above, that a combined medication and therapy treatment may be advantageous, although the price still jumps once behavioral management treatments are introduced.
  • I realize that the idea of "drugging" our children is inherently wrong in the minds of most individuals. While I personally have a natural bias against this treatment method, I have written extensively about the relative safety and lack of risk factors for most ADHD medications out there today. Given the fact that many of us are feeling the pinch economically, medication treatment is often the only cost-effective option to most people, and this study indicates how cost-effective this treatment method really is.
  • By no means is this post meant to downplay the vital role of community-based programs and treatment options out there, for a number of individuals, these programs have been extremely beneficial. Additionally, I know that a number of children exhibit wonderful behvioral changes with regards to their ADHD and related disorders. Nevertheless, the purpose of this review was to simply investigate the cost-effectiveness of these treatment options, and, on the whole, these resources often provide less bang-for-the-buck than medication treatments.
  • Finally, I acknowledge that this is just one major study, and that to attach an unquestionable certainty to these findings would be irresponsible. However, we should note that, from the previous post, that the cost of untreated ADHD poses as an enormous economic threat to our society. As a result, all of the measures addressed in the passage above offer at least some degree of advantage over leaving ADHD and its comorbid disorders untreated.

If I can find enough quality studies on the topic, I may post further discussions on the cost effectiveness of different specific medications for ADHD in the near future. In the meantime, we will be returning to more hard-science based articles for the next several posts.

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