Pediatricians Treating More Children with Behavioral Health Disorders, Study Shows

September 7, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Pediatricians are diagnosing and treating a growing number of children with behavioral health problems. However, they do not always feel comfortable or sufficiently trained to fill this new role, according to a study from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

The study involved interviews with community pediatricians who estimated that an average of about 15 percent of the children they see have behavioral health problems, said Jane Williams, Ph.D., lead author of the study. The report was published in the September issue of Pediatrics.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioral health disorder seen by pediatricians, she said. The pediatricians “expressed a high level of comfort with the diagnosis and frequently or occasionally prescribed stimulants” to treat it.

But when a child is suffering from anxiety or depression, the pediatricians felt they were on shakier grounds. Fewer than half the pediatricians said they diagnosed anxiety and depression frequently. Those that did typically used questionnaires in making the diagnosis and prescribed drugs from a class that includes Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

The study found a “strong interest in diagnosing and treating behavioral health disorders within their perceived limits and level of comfort,” Williams and her Wake Forest Baptist colleagues reported. “They were very concerned about the correctness of these diagnoses and consider the impact on both the child and family.”

The researchers said pediatricians are treating more children with psychiatric problems in part because of chronic underfunding of the public mental health system. Only about 2 percent of the children who need treatment are seen by mental health specialists.

In fact, the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD has shifted primarily to pediatricians, the results showed. “The diagnosis of anxiety and depression appeared to be shifting more gradually to pediatric providers,” Williams said.

But many pediatricians felt they were not prepared in medical school and their residency training programs to treat these children, leading to a scramble to find continuing medical education courses to fill that gap. They often felt unprepared to treat depression and anxiety and to choose appropriate drugs for these diagnoses.

“Perhaps the most important and most generalizable findings of this study involve the need for increased training and for continuing medical education in behavioral health,” Williams said.

That’s of special concern because depression often leads to both suicide and substance abuse. “As primary care settings may be the only environment in which adolescents are seen, their high mortality rate from accidents, homicide and suicide would suggest the critical need for pediatricians to recognize and inquire about these symptoms,” she said.

Along with Williams, other researchers included Jane M. Foy, M.D. and Kurt Klinepeter, M.D., both of Brenner Children’s Hospital, Guy Palmes, M.D., of the Department of Psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist and Anita Pulley of Northwest Area Health Education Center.

The study was sponsored by a grant from the Duke Endowment as part of its Primary Care-Children’s Mental Health Initiative.


Media Contacts: Robert Conn ( Shannon Koontz,, or Karen Richardson,, at 336-716-4587.

About Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center: Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital, Wake Forest University Health Sciences and Brenner Children’s Hospital. The system comprises 1,282 acute care, rehabilitation, psychiatry and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report. Brenner Children’s was named one of the top 30 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Child magazine.


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