Racial/ethnic disparities in care delivery and outcomes are an ongoing issue in the United States healthcare system. Discrepancies in emergency care are of special concern, since emergency departments (EDs) play a central role as primary care provider for a diverse group of patients. Minority patients are less likely to receive analgesic medications for abdominal pain at US EDs, suggests a nationwide study published in the Medical Care.
Senior author Dr. Adil H. Haider of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, said, "This analysis, which uses data from EDs from across the country, found that minorities experience significant disparities with regard to the receipt of analgesic medications for abdominal pain. Black patients had the greatest increased odds of under-treatment for pain among the groups considered. Black and Hispanic patients experienced prolonged ED lengths of stay and were less likely to be hospitalized for their ailments."
The study included data on more than 6,700 adult patients with nontraumatic acute abdominal pain, seen at 350 US EDs between 2006 and 2010. Drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, the sample represented more than 25 million visits to 4,700 EDs nationwide.
Overall, white patients were most likely to receive any analgesic medication- 57%, compared to 53% for Hispanic patients, 51% for black patients, and 47% for those of other racial/ethnic groups. White patients were more likely to receive narcotic analgesic drugs than black patients, despite similar rates of severe pain.
After adjustment for other factors, patients of minority race/ethnicity were 22-30% less likely to receive any analgesic medication, and 17-30% less likely to receive narcotic analgesics (relative to white patients). Minority patients also had longer ED waiting times, were more likely to remain in the ED for a prolonged period, and were less likely to be admitted to the hospital.
On analysis of hospital factors, the discrepancies were concentrated in hospitals that served the largest percentage of minority patients and the largest proportion of patients with severe pain. Black patients at these hospitals were at particularly high risk of inadequate treatment for pain.
Dr. Haider adds, "These findings add to the overwhelming evidence that racial/ethnic disparities not only exist, but are unfortunately endemic in health care settings." The researchers call for further studies to clarify the 'root causes' of the racial/ethnic differences in pain management. The finding that disparities are higher at EDs that see more minority patients and more cases of severe pain suggest that hospital-level factors contribute to gaps in adequate pain treatment.
Dr. Haider and coauthors concluded, "Our findings indicate that disparities in healthcare delivery continue to represent an area of important concern. It is essential that we as a medical community work to ensure that every patient receive unbiased empathy and the highest standard of care, regardless of his/her racial heritage."