Do Physicians Have A Racial Bias When Treating Back Pain?

Category: Back Pain | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: October 4, 2021

Doctor Talking To Senior Couple

A new study out of UCLA found that physicians were more likely to prescribe opioids to white patients who complained of back pain compared to other ethnic groups.

To get a better understanding of racial inequalities when it comes to healthcare treatment, researchers looked at nationwide medical claims data from 2006 to 2015 for about 275,000 Medicare beneficiaries who were 66 or older and were experiencing new-onset low back pain. Although there was not a huge difference between how racial groups were treated, there clearly exists a gap in care based on race.

Bias In Healthcare Based On Race

On average, opioids were distributed to 11.5% of white patients compared to 10% of Black patients, 9% of Asian/Pacific Islander patients and 10.5% of Hispanic patients. The discrepancy only gets worse when examining severe or long-lasting back pain. For patients with this type of back pain, opioids were prescribed to 36% of white patients, 30% of Black patients, 21% of Asian/Pacific Islanders and 24% of Hispanics.

It’s also worth noting that over-the-counter pain relievers were less likely to be prescribed to white patients. Physicians prescribed lower-dosed pain medications in the form of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs to 25% of Black patients, 25% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, 28% of Hispanics but only 24% of white patients.

“This appears to be a case of differential treatment of pain or bias by physicians, in which the pain of certain patients deserves opioids and the pain of others does not,” said Dr. Dan Ly, lead author and assistant professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“The fact that, in hindsight, more white patients developed dangerous long-term opioid use doesn’t absolve physicians of this differential treatment.”

Dr. Ly went on to theorize that it’s possible that physicians may have had less confidence that minority groups would use opioids responsibly, despite the fact that there is no evidence of differing rates of opioids misuse based on race. He also thought that it’s possible that white patients were more persistent about requesting opioids from their physician, but again there was no evidence of this.

At the Midwest Spine & Brain Institute, we do everything in our power to treat each and every patient with respect and get them the care they deserve based on what is best for them, without letting bias make its way into our recommendations. But we also understand that bias can occur without realizing that you’re treating a patient differently for one reason or another, which is why we try to stay aware of implicit bias and call attention to inequalities in care whenever we notice something seems off.

We promise to give you the care and attention you deserve based on what we believe is in your best interest given all the medical evidence and your input for how you’d like to move forward with care. That doesn’t mean you’ll always get to choose opioids or surgery, but we want patients to be involved in their care because we know that an involved patient tends to see better results when it comes to treatment.

So if you are feeling like your concerns aren’t being met by your current provider, or you’d just like to learn more about what we can do for your back pain, reach out to Dr. Sinicropi today.

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