Study Finds Racial Disparity in ER Opioid Prescriptions

By Pat Anson, Editor

Black patients who visit hospital emergency rooms with back and abdominal pain are significantly less likely to receive opioid prescriptions than white patients, according to a large new study published in PLOS ONE

The study, led by researchers at Boston University Medical Center, looked at data involving over 36 million emergency room visits in the U.S. from 2007 to 2011. No previous studies have examined racial disparities involving opioid prescriptions in ER settings.

The researchers found that opioids were prescribed for blacks at about half the rate for whites for vague “non-definitive conditions” that do not have an easy diagnosis -- such as back and abdominal pain.

No racial prescribing differences were found for ER visits involving fractures, kidney stones or toothaches – which are easier to diagnose.

The authors concluded that ER doctors may be relying on subjective cues such as race when deciding whether to prescribe opioids.

“These disparities may reflect inherent biases that health care providers hold unknowingly, leading to differential treatment of patients based on their race,” wrote co-authors Yu-Yu Tien of the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy and Renee Y. Hsia of the University of California at San Francisco.

“Healthcare providers carry inherent human biases, which can impact their prescription practices, especially in situations that do not lend themselves well to objective decisions. Racial-ethnic minority patients, especially non-Hispanic blacks presenting with vague conditions often associated with drug-seeking behavior, may be more likely to be judged as ‘a drug-seeker’ relative to a non-Hispanic white patient, presenting with similar pain-related complains.”

The authors noted that a recent study in JAMA found that prescription opioid abuse and addiction were actually more likely among whites than Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks.

“In light of this, our findings raises a perplexing question as to whether it is non-Hispanic blacks who are being under-prescribed, or is it non-Hispanic whites who are being over-prescribed. Paradoxically, then, while non-Hispanic blacks do not benefit from bias, they might be inadvertently benefitting by receiving fewer opioid medications and prescriptions,” they wrote.

In their analysis of emergency room visits, the researchers also found that uninsured patients and those on Medicaid were less likely to receive an opioid for “non-definitive conditions” than those with private insurance.

A small study at the University of Virginia also found signs of racial bias involving pain care in a survey of white medical students. Researchers asked 222 medical students and residents a series of hypothetical questions about treating pain in mock medical cases involving white and black patients suffering pain from a kidney stone or leg fracture.  

Many of the students and residents were found to hold false beliefs, such as believing that black people's skin is thicker and that their blood coagulates faster than whites.  Half of those surveyed endorsed at least one false belief; and those who did were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients and were less accurate in their treatment recommendations for blacks.