Racial disparities in opioid administration and prescribing in the emergency department for pain

Hyojung Kang, Peng Zhang, Seokgi Lee, Sa Shen, Eleanor Dunham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Study objective: To investigate the holistic characteristics of patients administered or prescribed opioids to treat pain in the emergency department (ED). Methods: We used National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) data for 2018 to examine the administration and prescribing of opioids for pain-related ED visits. Weighted logistic regression models were developed to evaluate the association between opioid administration and prescribing (OAP) in the ED and patients' pain/severity of conditions, demographic/socioeconomic factors, behavioral factors, contextual factors, and organizational factors. Then, subgroup analyses were conducted by type of pain. Results: Nearly 55% of the ED visits in 2018 involved pain as a main reason for visiting the ED. The odds of receiving opioids were 45% less in black patients than in white patients when other covariates were adjusted (OR: 0.55; CI: 0.430–0.703). Compared to patients with private insurance, Medicaid beneficiaries and uninsured/self-pay patients had a 45% (OR: 0.55; CI: 0.423–0.706) and 44% (OR: 0.56; CI: 0.386–0.813) lower chance of receiving or being prescribed opioids for a pain-related ED visit when all covariates were adjusted. Other significant predictors of OAP for pain in EDs included older age, higher pain level, ED arrival by ambulance, admission to hospital, ED arrival during a night shift, geographic region of the ED. Behavioral factors, such as ED return within 72 h and whether a patient has substance/alcohol abuse or dependence, were not significantly associated with OAP. The subgroup analysis indicated that black patients had lower odds of OAP than their white counterparts only for certain pain categories. Conclusion: Despite increasing awareness of potential implicit bias in managing pain in the ED, racial disparities in OAP still existed. More education and training on implicit bias would help with reduce the disparities. Also, our study result indicated that non-clinical factors may play a role in emergency physicians' decision making in OAP. Increased recognition of the variation and systemic efforts to address factors affecting the variability are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-173
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Emergency Medicine
StatePublished - May 2022


  • Contextual factors
  • Opioids
  • Pain
  • Racial disparities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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