Study Finds Racial Bias in Drug Testing

By Pat Anson, Editor

African-American patients on long-term opioid therapy are more likely to be drug tested by their doctors and significantly more likely to have their opioid prescriptions stopped if an illicit drug is detected, according to a new study.

Yale researchers analyzed the health records of more than 15,000 patients who received opioids from the Veterans Administration between 2000 and 2010. About half of the VA patients were white and half black.

Over 25 percent of the black patients had a urine drug test within the first six months of opioid treatment, compared to nearly 16% of whites.

When patients tested positive for either marijuana or cocaine, the vast majority – 90 percent -- continued to receive their opioid prescriptions. But there were significant differences in how patients were treated depending on their race.

Black patients that tested positive for marijuana were twice as likely as whites to have opioid therapy stopped and three times more likely to have opioids discontinued if cocaine was detected in their urine.

The findings, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, are consistent with previous research showing disparities in how blacks and whites are treated by the healthcare system in general, and particularly when opioids are involved.


“There is no mandate to immediately stop a patient from taking prescription opioids if they test positive for illicit drugs,” said first author Julie Gaither, PhD, a pediatrics instructor at the Yale School of Medicine.

“It’s our feeling that without clear guidance, physicians are falling back on ingrained stereotypes, including racial stereotyping. When faced with evidence of illicit drug use, clinicians are more likely to discontinue opioids when a patient is black, even though research has shown that whites are the group at highest risk for overdose and death.”

A 2016 study of emergency room patients found that blacks were significantly less likely to get an opioid for abdominal pain than whites. Another study of white medical students and residents found that half had at least one false belief about black patients. Those that did were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients.

Drug Testing for Marijuana Not Recommended

The 2016 CDC opioid guideline encourages doctors to conduct urine drug tests before starting opioid therapy and at least annually after patients start taking the drugs. But the guideline also urges physicians not to test opioid patients for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people high.

Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear. For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC).” the guideline states.

"Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources and the clinician missing opportunities to facilitate treatment for substance use disorder."

Another factor to consider is the unreliability of urine drug tests. As PNN has reported, “point-of care” (POC) urine drug tests, the kind widely used in doctor’s offices, frequently giving false positive or false negative results for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. 

A 2015 study found that 21% of POC tests for marijuana and 12% of those for cocaine produced a false positive result.

Race and Economic Insecurity Play Key Roles in Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies are adding to the growing evidence that links pain with economic, social and racial differences in the United States.

Researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University say African-Americans use coping strategies that often make their pain worse; while researchers at the University of Virginia found that people who feel that their financial outlook is shaky experience more physical pain.

“The past decade has seen a rise in both economic insecurity and frequency of physical pain. The current research reveals a causal connection between these two growing and consequential social trends,” wrote lead author Eileen Chou of the University of Virginia in the journal Psychological Science.

Chou and her colleagues looked at six different studies and found that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts consumption of over-the-counter pain relievers. The researchers believe economic insecurity also leads people to feel a lack of control in their lives, which activates psychological processes associated with anxiety, fear, and stress.

Data from a consumer panel of nearly 34,000 individuals revealed that households in which both adults were unemployed spent 20% more on over-the-counter pain relievers than households in which at least one adult was working.

Smaller studies also found that unemployment was correlated with reports of pain. And people who recalled periods of economic instability reported almost double the amount of physical pain than those who recalled economically stable periods.

“Overall, the findings show that it physically hurts to be economically insecure,” Chou said.

Financial stress and economic insecurity were also blamed in a recent landmark study by Princeton University researchers who found that nearly half a million middle aged white Americans died prematurely in the last 15 years. The rising death rate for whites was also attributed to drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic pain and disability.

Blacks and Whites Cope with Pain Differently

The researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University also used a meta-analysis (a study of studies) to reach their conclusion that black and white Americans cope with pain differently. The review of 19 studies, which included 2,719 black and 3,770 white adults, is the first to quantify the relationship between race and the use of pain-coping strategies.

"Coping" was broadly defined as the use of behavioral and cognitive techniques to manage stress.

Blacks were significantly more likely to use prayer and hoping as pain-coping strategies than whites, according to researchers. Blacks were also more likely than whites to think about their pain in a catastrophic manner.

"Our findings suggest that blacks frequently use coping strategies that are associated with worse pain and functioning," said Adam Hirsh, a clinical health psychologist. "They view themselves as helpless in the face of pain. They see the pain as magnified -- the worst pain ever. They ruminate, think about the pain all the time, and it occupies a lot of their mind space."

While that kind of coping might be considered a negative approach to pain, Hirsch says it also may have benefits.

“It may also be a potent communication strategy -- it tells others in a culture with a strong communal component that the person is really suffering and needs help. Thus, it may be helpful in some ways, such as eliciting support from other people, and unhelpful in other ways. In future studies, we will give this more nuanced investigation," said Hirsch, whose study is published in the Journal of Pain.

Ignoring pain rather than allowing it to interfere with the task at hand was the only coping strategy employed by whites more than blacks. Several studies reviewed by researchers found that ignoring strategies are associated with less pain, whereas praying, hoping and catastrophizing are associated with higher pain levels.

"How people think about their pain matters," said Hirsh. "For example, religion can be used as a passive coping strategy -- asking a higher authority to take the pain away -- or as an active coping strategy -- asking to be given strength to manage pain.”

Blacks reported higher levels of pain than whites for a number of conditions including arthritis, post-operative pain and lower-back pain. Blacks also experience greater pain in both clinical and experimental studies. Blacks reported less-effective pain care, are unable to return to work for a longer time due to pain, and have worse functional outcomes.

Hirsch says understanding how different racial groups cope with pain may improve pain care and support individually tailored treatment.