The effect of race/ethnicity and desirable social characteristics on physicians' decisions to prescribe opioid analgesics

Acad Emerg Med. 2003 Nov;10(11):1239-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2003.tb00608.x.


Objective: Racial/ethnic disparities in physician treatment have been documented in multiple areas, including emergency department (ED) analgesia. The purpose of this study was to determine if physicians were predisposed to different treatment decisions based on patient race/ethnicity and if physicians' treatment predispositions changed when socially desirable information about the patient (occupation, socioeconomic status, and relationship with a primary care physician) was made explicit.

Methods: The authors developed three clinical vignettes designed to engage physicians' decision-making processes. The patient's race/ethnicity was included. Each vignette randomly included or omitted explicit socially desirable information. The authors mailed 5,750 practicing emergency physicians three clinical vignettes and a one-page questionnaire about demographic and practice characteristics. Chi-square tests of significance for bivariate analyses and multiple logistic regression were used for multivariate analyses.

Results: A total of 2,872 (53%) of the 5,398 potential physician subjects participated. Patient race/ethnicity had no effect on physician prescription of opioids at discharge for African Americans, Hispanics, and whites: absolute differences in rates of prescribing opioids at discharge were less than 2% for all three conditions presented. Making socially desirable information explicit increased the prescribing rates by 4% (95% CI = 0.1% to 8%) for the migraine vignette and 6% (95% CI = 3% to 8%) for the back pain vignette.

Conclusions: Patient race/ethnicity did not influence physicians' predispositions to treatment plans in clinical vignettes. Even knowing that the patient had a high-prestige occupation and a primary care provider only minimally increased prescribing of opioid analgesics for conditions with few objective findings.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Racial Groups
  • Social Desirability


  • Analgesics, Opioid