A study released on Aug. 8 found that black people are less likely than whites to receive prescription pain medications during visits to emergency departments for certain conditions, despite having the same symptoms.
The nationwide study, published on the website of medical journal PLOS ONE, found there were definite racial differences when opioid-based pain medication was given for back and abdominal pain, but not for cases of toothaches, kidney stones and long-bone fractures.
According to a University of California San Francisco press release, the researchers found that black people with back or abdominal pain were about half as likely as white people to be prescribed opioid painkillers while in the ER or when they were discharged from the ER.
Renee Y. Hsia, M.D., a senior study author and professor of emergency medicine at UCSF, said in the news release: "Even when we are trying our best to care for our patients, bias can creep in. When we actually look at the data on how medical professionals prescribe opioids, we see differences."
The data for the study was culled from 2007 to 2011 and included over 60 million emergency department visits that were pain-related.
The pain conditions were either "definitive" objectively diagnosable cases or "non-definitive" conditions, which are harder to diagnose.
Black people were not the only ones getting shortchanged; other minorities were less likely to get prescription painkillers when being discharged for abdominal pain.
In general, opioid painkillers were more likely to be prescribed for definitive rather than non-definitive cases.
Hsia made a statement in conclusion:
Whether or not someone "needs" opioids is a very subjective decision -- there isn’t an objective test.
In the media you see a lot about how we need to change the culture because we have inherent biases, and this study shows these biases even affect healthcare.
The first step is looking for these disparities. We can’t do anything about them unless we know that they exist.