Further Thoughts on the Recommendations
by Andrew Adesman, MD
Though the air is starting to clear, the dust has not yet settled on the issue of cardiovascular monitoring of children with AD/HD! What do I mean by this?
On April 23, the American Heart Association issued a statement recommending cardiovascular evaluation and monitoring of children and adolescents being treated with medication for AD/HD. The AHA not only suggested that a careful history and physical examination be done, it also recommended for the first time that all children and adolescents with AD/HD should have an EKG done prior to treatment with stimulant medication.
This recommendation created considerable concern among parents and controversy among professionals. In a blog entry posted on the CHADD website on April 23, I raised several concerns about this recommendation and its implementation. In the weeks following the release of the AHA statement, experts from the fields of pediatrics, child psychiatry, and even pediatric cardiology have raised serious questions about the scientific basis for the AHA’s recommendation to do electrocardiograms in all children and adolescents prior to treatment with medication for AD/HD. These experts not only shared my concerns about the logistical and practical issues of timing, cost, availability, and accuracy of EKGs, they questioned the very rationale for doing EKGs in children for whom there are no known cardiac risk factors. (Note: There is general agreement that children with certain specific clinical cardiac risk factors should have an EKG and/or evaluation by a pediatric cardiologist.)
In response to heated criticism from various medical experts, the AHA modified its recommendation. On May 15, the AHA released a Media Advisory (in conjunction with the American Academy of Pediatrics) to “clarify” its recommendations. Whereas the AHA originally recommended an EKG for all children with AD/HD prior to treatment with medication, they now state that it is “reasonable for a physician to consider obtaining an EKG as part of the evaluation of children being considered for stimulant drug therapy, but this should be at the physician’s judgment, and it is not mandatory to obtain one.... Treatment of a patient with AD/HD should not be withheld because an EKG is not done.”
This revision to the AHA position is a welcome modification and will reduce the sense of obligation that many physicians have been feeling with respect to performing EKGs on their patients. As a developmental pediatrician specializing in the evaluation and management of AD/HD, I can attest to the many logistical difficulties associated with getting EKGs done quickly and the clinical uncertainty that results when EKG findings are not completely normal. (As noted in the original AHA paper, there are many EKG findings that are variants of normal or mildly abnormal but are not clinically concerning from an AD/HD treatment standpoint.)
The AHA recommendations to do universal EKG testing on children with AD/HD prior to treatment with medication would have led to a multitude of false positives (erroneous reports of abnormalities in children) and undue clinical concern as well as a considerable cost and inevitable delay in therapy. It is fortunate for all that the AHA has backed away from its original recommendation.
It is important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics has not endorsed the AHA statement in either its original form or its revised form. The likely reason for this is that, in their recently published, evidence-based guidelines for evaluation and treatment of children with AD/HD, the AAP did not recommend that EKGs be done in individuals if there are no cardiac concerns or risk factors. In short, whereas the AHA is recommending that an EKG be “considered” for all children with AD/HD prior to treatment, the AAP has thus far recommended that an EKG only be done where there are specific clinical concerns to justify it.
If the AAP stands by its previous recommendations, then its position will be “at odds” with the AHA’s revised statement. Although individual experts and medical organizations can reasonably disagree, there are several unfortunate consequences from such a public difference of opinion. For example, clinicians and patients will not be certain whose recommendations to follow. This will undoubtedly lead to inconsistency among providers regarding EKG screening. It is also quite likely that health insurance companies may chose to not cover the cost of an EKG in low-risk children if the AAP itself does not recommend EKGs for these patients. This would mean that there could be a significant out-of-pocket expense for a test that is recommended by some experts and clinicians but not others.
To the extent that the AHA is making recommendations for EKG screening that go well beyond previous recommendations of the AAP, they may find themselves wanting to “clarify” (i.e., retract) one sentence in their May 15 Media Advisory. In that document, the AHA clearly states that “the child’s physician is the best person to make the assessment about whether there is a need for an EKG.” How ironic! When it comes to determining the need for an EKG in a child with AD/HD, the AHA recognizes pediatricians as being the expert on a case-by-case basis—yet, they reject their collective judgment when it comes to developing generalized, evidence-based guidelines for evaluating and treating children with AD/HD.
Although the AHA policy revisions help to clear the air, I don’t think the dust can start to settle until the AAP makes a public statement about this issue. Until then, clinicians and families will have to pursue safe and effective treatment in the face of imperfect knowledge and conflicting opinions. Despite potential differences of clinical perspective among experts, I think it is important to remember that both the AHA and the AAP recognize stimulant medication as a safe treatment for children with AD/HD who have no risk factors for cardiac problems, and that even children with cardiac risk factors may be considered for treatment with stimulant therapy once an appropriate cardiac evaluation is performed. That is the heart of the matter!
Andrew Adesman, MD, is chief of developmental & behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children’s Hospital, part of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New Hyde Park, New York. A former member of CHADD’s board of directors and a current member of its professional advisory board, Dr. Adesman is recognized nationally for his clinical expertise in child development. He has authored many articles on AD/HD and co-authored the book Parenting Your Adopted Child.