Alarm at ADHD drug use

DRUG HIGH: Prescriptions of all stimulant drugs to treat ADHD among Australians rose 87 per cent between 2002 and 2009.
DRUG HIGH: Prescriptions of all stimulant drugs to treat ADHD among Australians rose 87 per cent between 2002 and 2009.

Prescriptions for drugs to treat hyperactivity have soared in a decade with more than 100,000 prescriptions handed out last year.

That's a jump from around 60,000 being prescribed such drugs in 2001.

In the Waikato the number of prescriptions for the drugs (including Ritalin, Rubifen and Concerta) to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) went from 5800 in 2001 to 8400 last year.

Canterbury had the most prescriptions - with 13,300 last year.

The huge rise in numbers has one expert convinced the drug is being over prescribed and kids misdiagnosed.

Psychologist and behavioural expert Frances Steinberg believes shoddy, lazy diagnostic processes are resulting in children labelled with ADHD when they are suffering other problems such as foetal alcohol syndrome, sleep deprivation or anxiety.

Dr Steinberg said diagnosing ADHD was a complex process, that required a lot of time to get right. "But it's a lot easier to write a script and see what happens."

While the drugs might show some positive effect in the short term on those without ADHD, they wouldn't long-term, leaving the child misdiagnosed and untreated for their real problems.

"In the long run we'll have an entire generation whose needs are not being met."

But developmental paediatrician Andrew Marshall disagreed, saying the increase was down to a better understanding of the condition and the drugs to treat it.

While in an "ideal world" a paediatrician would have 10 hours to diagnose a child, that wasn't realistic "... but you can get it right - most of the time - very efficiently and being efficient and safe is what doctors are good at".

Pharmac medical director Peter Moodie said the numbers "hadn't rung alarm bells" when compared with other countries. In the United States, Ritalin prescriptions increased by 83 per cent between 2006 and 2010.

He also believed more awareness of the disease contributed to the increase.

Waikato University psychologist Carrie Barber agreed ADHD was a difficult disease to diagnose and took more than just a sit-down with a child.

"If a child came in to my office I wouldn't necessarily see they had ADHD.

"You'd need to go out and see them in a school setting, but that takes a lot of resources and psychiatrists and paediatricians don't have the time to do that."

Dr Barber said drugs might be worth a try - but should be stopped if they weren't working.


The most commonly used drug to treat ADHD in New Zealand is Methylphenidate which comes in short and long release. Short release drugs like Ritalin last about three to four hours, while long release, like Concerta, last around 10 hours. They suppress the classical symptoms of ADHD, allowing the children to focus without being disruptive.

Waikato Times