The Demographic Divide of the Opioid Epidemic

It is no secret that the majority of America’s opioid epidemic victims are white, male, of low-income or a combination of any of the above. This factor has shed a good bit of scrutiny on the address of this issue (particularly when it is compared to drug outbreaks of the past that have targeted a different demographic). However, a new study by Joseph Friedman, MPH; David Kim, MD; and Todd Schneberk, MD, MS; published in JAMA Internal Medicine, aims to expose just what lead this epidemic to its particular set of victims. In so, the study examines the disparity between treatment for those of differing income and race/ethnicity. Utilizing records from the state of California’s Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, data from 29.7 million citizens who obtained a prescription between 2011 and 2015 was analyzed.

The most striking result was “the differences in prescription prevalence”. In other words- it was divulged that there is a great skew in the access to and within the health care field pending one’s income and race/ethnicity. The study’s findings “suggest race and class can outweigh a patient’s medical needs in determining who has access to prescription drugs”. While this shows that non-white communities are far less likely to be burdened by this epidemic, it simultaneously uncovers a blatant lack of care in regards to the medical attention received by non-white communities. There is no evidence stating that the areas with a lesser amount of white residents are in any less pain, or have any less of a need for medication-assisted pain treatment. And yet, there is a “300% difference in opioid prescription prevalence across race/ethnicity-income gradient”. We can turn to the multitude of racial biases and systemic racism imbedded within the medical system for explanation. According to the discussion, “one foundational study [on opioid prescription rates] proved that “Hispanic patients were 2 times less likely to receive analgesics following long bone fractures than white patients”. While income patterns and their correlation to prescriptions fluctuate outside of the opioid realm, the racial trends transcends it, spanning across various drug classes from stimulants for treatment of ADHD, Benzodiazepines as well as diagnosis and treatment for epilepsy. These deep-seeded roots are not new, they are just newly surfaced.


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