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An Increasing Epidemic: Opioid Overdoses Among Black/African Americans



The opioid crisis has become one of the most devastating public health crises in recent history. 

The epidemic affects people of all ages and backgrounds, but its impact has been particularly devastating for Black/African Americans. 

A new study published in JAMA Network Open shows that Black/African Americans have a higher rate of opioid overdose mortality than white people. 

These findings suggest that we need more research into how racial bias affects access to treatment and disparate treatment between races when addressing addiction issues.

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Black/ African Americans have a lower rate of opioid use than white people

This information may be surprising to some, but it’s essential to understand. 

Black /African Americans have a lower rate of opioid use than white people, yet they have a higher rate of overdose mortality. 

This means that while white Americans are more likely to take prescription painkillers, black /African Americans are far more likely to die.

The United States Surgeon General has called this disparity an epidemic, and it’s easy to see why when you look at the numbers:

While opioid overdose rates remain high among all racial groups, Black /African Americans have a higher rate of opioid overdose mortality than white people. 

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 68% of those who died from opioid-related death were non-Hispanic whites and 36% were non-Hispanic blacks.

Although blacks are prescribed opioids at a lower rate than whites, they are more likely to be given higher doses of opioids. 

This may contribute to their increased risk for addiction. Additionally, since Black/African Americans tend to live in areas with less access to treatment programs for opioid addiction, they may have limited options for getting help when they need it most.


Lack of health insurance is another factor

As we’ve discussed, a lack of health insurance is one factor that can impede how black people access treatment for pain and addictions. 

Black/African Americans are less likely to have health insurance than other racial groups, which means they’re also less likely to be able to seek out or afford treatment (particularly medication) for pain. 

This is especially true in rural areas where access to doctors and specialists may be limited.


Racial bias may create health disparities in the treatment

It’s important to note that racial bias is a natural phenomenon, and it may be at play in the treatment of black patients. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “racial/ethnic disparities in health care are pervasive.” 

HHS found that racial disparities exist across nearly all health measures they examined

—including access to care and quality of care—and even extend into end-of-life care.

These findings mirror results from studies on implicit bias in medicine: Research suggests that some doctors hold unconscious biases against people of color, which can hurt how those physicians treat their patients. 

For example, one study found that white medical students displayed greater discomfort when treating minority patients than their counterparts did when treating white patients; another study showed that physicians were more likely to prescribe pain medications for white patients than for black ones; still, another found that black children were less likely than other children to receive opioids after having surgery for appendicitis or tonsil removal.


Policy implementation program

Black people are more likely to be undertreated for pain, and more likely to be prescribed opioids for other reasons (e.g., anxiety or depression). 

This is partly because black patients have been shown to have lower trust in their medical providers, which may lead them to report higher pain levels than white patients. 

Black patients also tend to receive less aggressive care from doctors when it comes to the treatment of cancer-related symptoms, chronic pain, and heart disease; so, it’s no surprise that they’re less likely than whites to be prescribed opioid medications when they do need them.

The opioid crisis is an increasingly urgent public health issue that continues to affect the black community at a disproportionate rate. 

Healthcare providers must recognize this epidemic and work towards reducing disparities in treating their patients with pain and addiction issues. 

Black/African Americans have higher rates of mortality due to opioid overdoses than white people. Still, there are steps we can take as a society to ensure that everyone receives adequate care when they need it most.


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