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Racial Disparities in Prescription Medication for Opioid Use Disorder After High-Risk Events: A New Study by Harvard Researchers

A new study led by researchers at the Harvard T.H.[0] Chan School of Public Health has found that Black and Hispanic patients are significantly less likely to receive and fill prescriptions for opioid use disorder (OUD) medications than White patients after a high-risk OUD-related event.[1] The study looked at data from Medicare claims between 2016 and 2019 and found that within 180 days of an index OUD-related event, Black patients received a prescription for buprenorphine only 12.7% of the time, Hispanic patients 18.7% of the time, and White patients 23.3% of the time.[2] The same pattern was found for naloxone, a drug for reversing overdoses.[0] Black patients received and filled a prescription for naloxone after 14.4% of OUD events, Hispanic patients after 20.7%, and White patients after 22.9%.[2]

The disparities in treatment could not be explained by differences in access to healthcare providers, as all patients, regardless of race, made a similar number of visits to healthcare providers in the six months following an OUD-related event.[2] The researchers suggest that disparities in treatment may be due to where people of color get their healthcare, which is highly segregated, and racial differences in patient trust and demand for buprenorphine.[2]

The study also found that nearly a quarter of patients filled prescriptions for opioid painkillers, a troubling finding as these patients had already indicated a dependence on opioids during encounters with doctors.[3] Rates of filled prescriptions for benzodiazepines, which are associated with substantial risk for OUD patients, also differed by race, with 23.4% among Black patients, 29.6% among Latinos, and 37.1% among White patients.[3]

The study highlights the need for community-specific interventions that engage with minority populations and the clinicians who serve them to reduce stigma and bolster trust.[0] Addressing the overdose crisis and racial disparities in addiction will likely require a major overhaul in the addiction treatment system.[0]

0. “Substantial racial inequalities despite frequent health care contact found in treatment for opioid use disorder” Medical Xpress, 10 May. 2023, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2023-05-substantial-racial-inequalities-frequent-health.html

1. “Racial Inequality in Receipt of Medications for Opioid Use Disorder | NEJM” nejm.org, 10 May. 2023, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa2212412

2. “Racial, Ethnic Disparities Persist in OUD Treatment” Medpage Today, 10 May. 2023, https://www.medpagetoday.com/psychiatry/addictions/104451

3. “Addiction Treatment Medicine Is Vastly Underprescribed, Especially by Race, Study Finds” The New York Times, 10 May. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/10/health/addiction-treatment-buprenorphine-suboxone.html

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