By IAN URBINA
WASHINGTON — In what could prove to be one of their most far-reaching decisions, psychiatrists and other specialists who are rewriting the manual that serves as the nation’s arbiter of mental illness have agreed to revise the definition of addiction, which could result in millions more people being diagnosed as addicts and pose huge consequences for health insurers and taxpayers.
The revision to the manual, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or D.S.M., would expand the list of recognized symptoms for drug and alcohol addiction, while also reducing the number of symptoms required for a diagnosis, according to proposed changes posted on the Web site of the American Psychiatric Association, which produces the book.
In addition, the manual for the first time would include gambling as an addiction, and it might introduce a catchall category — “behavioral addiction — not otherwise specified” — that some public health experts warn would be too readily used by doctors, despite a dearth of research, to diagnose addictions to shopping, sex, using the Internet or playing video games.
Part medical guidebook, part legal reference, the manual has long been embraced by government and industry. It dictates whether insurers, including Medicare and Medicaid, will pay for treatment, and whether schools will expand financing for certain special-education services. Courts use it to assess whether a criminal defendant is mentally impaired, and pharmaceutical companies rely on it to guide their research.
The broader language involving addiction, which was debated this week at the association’s annual conference, is intended to promote more accurate diagnoses, earlier intervention and better outcomes, the association said. “The biggest problem in all of psychiatry is untreated illness, and that has huge social costs,” said Dr. James H. Scully Jr., chief executive of the group.
But the addiction revisions in the manual, scheduled for release in May 2013, have already provoked controversy similar to concerns previously raised about proposals on autism, depression and other conditions. Critics worry that changes to the definitions of these conditions would also sharply alter the number of people with diagnoses.
While the association says that the addiction definition changes would lead to health care savings in the long run, some economists say that 20 million substance abusers could be newly categorized as addicts, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional expenses.
“The chances of getting a diagnosis are going to be much greater, and this will artificially inflate the statistics considerably,” said Thomas F. Babor, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut who is an editor of the international journal Addiction. Many of those who get addiction diagnoses under the new guidelines would have only a mild problem, he said, and scarce resources for drug treatment in schools, prisons and health care settings would be misdirected.
“These sorts of diagnoses could be a real embarrassment,” Dr. Babor added.
The scientific review panel of the psychiatric association has demanded more evidence to support the revisions on addiction, but several researchers involved with the manual have said that the panel is not likely to change its proposal significantly.
The controversies about the revisions have highlighted the outsize influence of the manual, which brings in more than $5 million annually to the association and is written by a group of 162 specialists in relative secrecy. Besieged from all sides, the association has received about 25,000 comments on the proposed changes from treatment centers, hospital representatives, government agencies, advocates for patient groups and researchers. The organization has declined to make these comments public.
While other medical specialties rely on similar diagnostic manuals, none have such influence. “The D.S.M. is distinct from all other diagnostic manuals because it has an enormous, perhaps too large, impact on society and millions of people’s lives,” said Dr. Allen J. Frances, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, who oversaw the writing of the current version of the manual and worked on previous editions. “Unlike many other fields, psychiatric illnesses have no clear biological gold standard for diagnosing them. They present in different ways, and illnesses often overlap with each other.”
Dr. Frances has been one of the most outspoken critics of the new draft version, saying that overly broad and vaguely worded definitions will create more “false epidemics” and “medicalization of everyday behavior.” Like some others, he has also questioned whether a private association, whose members stand to gain from treating more patients, should be writing the manual, rather than an independent group or a federal agency.Under the new criteria, people who often drink more than intended and crave alcohol may be considered mild addicts. Under the old criteria, more serious symptoms, like repeatedly missing work or school, being arrested or driving under the influence, were required before a person could receive a diagnosis as an alcohol abuser.