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Disease Label Prompts Parents to Push for Treatments

Update Date: Apr 01, 2013 11:18 AM EDT

Babies and toddlers often suffer from minor symptoms and conditions that might not have any treatment options readily available and are not considered to be life threatening. Despite the fact that treatment might not be required, a new study revealed that when doctors or physicians use the term disease in relation to these minor symptoms, parents tend to jump straight to finding treatment options even if their doctors do not recommend them. This study revealed the problems behind over-medicating and over-prescribing young children, which have often been linked to other complications, such as drug abuse.

The study, headed by Laura Scherer, Ph.D. and colleagues, wanted to see how parents reacted toward certain phrases used during diagnoses. The researchers created a scenario in which 175 parents were presented with a crying baby who is spitting-up excessively. The parents were told that these symptoms were taking a toll on them. The participants were split into random groups. The researchers found that parents who were told that the baby had gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) were more likely to ask for medication in general. Parents who were told that it was GERD and that treatment would be ineffective and thus, unnecessary, still wanted some form of medication. The group of parents that were not given the disease label did not press as much for treatment options. The researchers also noted that parents who have dealt with GERD in another child before the study were more likely to want medication.

"Doctors may inadvertently encourage the use of questionable medical intervention and foster medicalization of minor pediatric illnesses by using labels that increase patients' perceived need for treatment," the researchers noted.

The researchers noted that the parents who were told that the infant had GERD and that treatment would not be effective reported to feeling appreciative of the physician's care. The parents that were not given the GERD label and were told treatment was ineffective stated that they did not appreciate the medication offer.

"One possible explanation is that in the context of a disease label, information about medication ineffectiveness might be seen as an act of candidness and honesty," the researchers explained.

"This is compelling evidence that the choice of words by physicians can significantly affect parents' views of their children's health," William Carey, MD, stated. Carey is from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. "The way we identify and deal with annoying normal or insignificant variations and how we discuss them with parents makes a big difference in the quality of care."

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in Pediatrics

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