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Study: Disease Diagnoses Lead More Parents to Needlessly Medicate


Diagnosing children with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) when in fact they suffer from common symptoms often leads parents to ask for unnecessary medication for their otherwise healthy child, according to a new study published in Pediatrics. 

Researchers found that parents wanted to give their infants medication after receiving a diagnosis of GERD for their child’s spitting up and crying, even when they were told that treatment wouldn’t be likely to work.

Plus: Reflux in Babies

“Clinical trials have shown that if the infant is otherwise healthy, the medications will not alleviate their symptoms in any way,” lead author Laura Scherer, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, tells

In a survey at the University of Michigan, 175 parents of kids under 18 were randomly told by doctors that their child had GERD, or they were not given a diagnosis. Doctors told half of the parents that medication would probably not be effective, while the other half were given no information about the efficacy of drug treatment.

When parents were told that their child had GERD but that medication wouldn’t work, they still wanted treatment. On the other hand, parents who weren’t told that their child had an illness only wanted medication when the doctor didn’t say whether or not it would be effective. When the doctor said that it wouldn’t be likely to work, parents were not interested in having their child treated.

Scherer says that receiving a diagnosis could result in disproportionate negative psychological distress. 

“One potential negative ramification is it can cause parents to believe that their child is sick and needs follow up visits when that’s not actually the case,” she says. “It could cause a parent to believe that their child is somehow more fragile than what is actually the case.”

In fact, parents shouldn’t be receiving the diagnosis at all unless their baby is failing to gain weight and shows obvious signs of being unhealthy.

“If their infant is simply suffering from these very irritating and overwhelming symptoms like spitting up profusely and crying excessively, then GERD probably shouldn’t be diagnosed,” said Scherer. 

“There’s reason to question the diagnosis and to listen to the whole story. Is the doctor saying that these symptoms are going to go away on their own? Is the doctor saying that the available medications don’t really work all that well? All of that information is just as important as this disease label that you may have been given.”