Blacks Less Likely to Receive Opioids for Advanced Cancer
Opioids are widely regarded as a lynchpin in the treatment of moderate to severe cancer-related pain and end-of-life symptoms; however, there are persistent racial and ethnic inequities in opioid access among older cancer patients, with Black patients being disproportionately affected, a new study suggests.
Black patients were more likely to undergo urine drug screening (UDS) despite being less likely to receive any opioids for pain management and receiving lower daily doses of opioids in comparison with White patients, the study found.
The inequities were particularly stark for Black men. “We found that Black men were far less likely to be prescribed reasonable doses than White men were,” said the study’s senior author, Alexi Wright, MD, MPH, a gynecologic oncologist and a researcher in Dana-Farber’s Division of Population Sciences. “And Black men were less likely to receive long-acting opioids, which are essential for many patients dying of cancer. Our findings are startling because everyone should agree that cancer patients should have equal access to pain relief at the end of life.”
The study was published on January 10 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
The researchers gathered data on 318,549 Medicare beneficiaries older than 65 years with poor-prognosis cancers who died between 2007 and 2019. During this time frame, for all groups, access to opioids declined and urine drug testing expanded, owing to the overall opioid epidemic in the United States. Overall, the proportion of patients near end of life (EOL) who received any opioid or long-acting opioids decreased from 42.2% to 32.7% and from 17.9% to 9.4%, respectively.
The investigators used National Drug Codes to identify all Medicare Part D claims for outpatient opioid prescriptions, excluding addiction treatments, cough suppressants, and parenteral opioids. They focused on prescriptions that were filled at least 30 days before death or hospice enrollment.
Among the study participants, the majority (85.5%) of patients were White, 29,555 patients (9.3%) were Black, and 16,636 patients (5.2%) were Hispanic.
Black and Hispanic patients were statistically less likely than White patients to receive opioid prescriptions near EOL (Black, –4.3 percentage points; Hispanic, –3.6 percentage points). They were also less likely to receive long-acting opioid prescriptions (Black, –3.1 percentage points; Hispanic, –2.2 percentage points).
“It’s not just that patients of color are less likely to get opioids, but when they do get them, they get lower doses, and they also are less likely to get long-acting opioids, which a lot of people view as sort of more potential for addiction, which isn’t necessarily true but kind of viewed with heightened concern or suspicion,” the study’s lead author, Andrea Enzinger, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist and a researcher in Dana-Farber’s Division of Population Sciences, told Medscape Medical News.
Enzinger added that she believes systemic racism and preconceived biases toward minorities and drug addiction may be contributing to these trends.
When Black patients did receive at least one opioid prescription, they received daily doses that were 10.5 morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs) lower than doses given to White patients. Compared with the total opioid dose filled per White decedent near EOL, the total dose filled per Black decedent was 210 MMEs lower.
“We all need to be worried about the potential for misuse or addiction, but this is the one setting that is very low on my priority list when somebody is dying. I mean, we’re looking at the last month of life, so nobody has the potential to become addicted,” Enzinger commented.
The team also evaluated rates or urine drug screening (UDS), but as these rates were relatively low, they expanded the time frame to 180 days before death or hospice. They found that disparities in UDS disproportionately affected Black men.
From 2007 to 2019, the proportion of patients who underwent UDS increased from 0.6% to 6.7% in the 180 days before death or hospice; however, Black decedents were tested more often than White or Hispanic decedents.
Black decedents were 0.5 percentage points more likely than White decedents to undergo UDS near EOL.
“The disparities in urine drug screening are modest but important, because they hint at underlying systematic racism in recommending patients for screening,” Wright said. “Screening needs to either be applied uniformly or not at all for patients in this situation.”
The researchers acknowledge that their findings likely do not represent the full spectrum of prescribing disparities and believe that the work should be expanded among younger populations. Nevertheless, the investigators believe the work highlights the persistent racial and ethnic disparities in opioid access.
The study was supported by a grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Policy.
J Clin Oncol. Published online January 10, 2023. Abstract
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