More educated emergency department patients are less likely to receive opioids for acute pain

Pain. 2012 May;153(5):967-973. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2012.01.013. Epub 2012 Mar 3.


Inadequate treatment of pain in United States emergency departments (EDs) is common, in part because of the limited and idiosyncratic use of opioids by emergency providers. This study sought to determine the relationship between patient socioeconomic characteristics and the likelihood that they would receive opioids during a pain-related ED visit. We conducted a cross-sectional analysis of ED data obtained as part of a multicenter study of outcomes after minor motor vehicle collision (MVC). Study patients were non-Hispanic white patients between the ages of 18 and 65 years who were evaluated and discharged home from 1 of 8 EDs in 4 states. Socioeconomic characteristics include educational attainment and income. Of 690 enrolled patients, the majority had moderate or severe pain (80%). Patients with higher education attainment had lower levels of pain, pain catastrophizing, perceived life threat, and distress. More educated patients were also less likely to receive opioids during their ED visit. Opioids were given to 54% of patients who did not complete high school vs 10% of patients with post-college education (χ(2) test P<.001). Differences in the frequency of opioid administration between patients with the lowest educational attainment (39%, 95% confidence interval 22% to 60%) and highest educational attainment (13%, 95% confidence interval 7% to 23%) remained after adjustment for age, sex, income, and pain severity (P=.01). In this sample of post-MVC ED patients, more educated patients were less likely to receive opioids. Further study is needed to assess the generalizability of these findings and to determine the reason for the difference.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Traffic
  • Acute Pain / drug therapy*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Utilization*
  • Educational Status
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States


  • Analgesics, Opioid