Racial differences in prescription of opioid analgesics for chronic noncancer pain in a national sample of veterans

J Pain. 2014 Apr;15(4):447-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2013.12.010. Epub 2014 Jan 16.


The purpose of this study was to investigate possible racial differences in opioid prescriptions among primary care patients with chronic noncancer pain receiving care in the Veterans Affairs health care system. This was a retrospective cohort study of 99,903 veterans with diagnoses of low back, neck, or joint pain selected to participate in the Veterans Affairs Survey of the Healthcare Experiences of Patients in fiscal year 2006. The outcome was prescription of opioids in the year following the first pain diagnosis, obtained through electronic medical record data. Analyses incorporated fixed effects for race, most recent pain intensity rating, new or established primary care patient status, and an interaction between race and most recent pain intensity rating, together with random effects for health care facility and race within facility. The association between patient race and prescription of opioids was moderated by baseline level of pain intensity scores (assessed on a 0-10 scale) and patient age. Among patients under 65 years of age, blacks with moderate (4-6) or high (7-10) levels of pain were less likely to receive opioids than whites (P = .0025, P = .0011); however, there were no significant differences between black and white patients with low levels of pain intensity (1-3) and those with pain intensity ratings of 0 (no pain). Among patients 65 and older with pain intensity ratings of zero, blacks were more likely than whites to receive opioid prescriptions (P = .0087), but there were no significant racial differences in opioid prescriptions in those with low to high levels of pain.

Perspective: Among veterans under age 65 reporting moderate to high levels of chronic noncancer pain, blacks were less likely to be prescribed opioids than whites, even after controlling for clinical and system-level factors. Results underscore the challenges of eliminating racial differences in pain treatment, despite comprehensive systemwide improvement initiatives.

Keywords: Opioids; chronic pain; disparities; race; veterans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Black People
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Healthcare Disparities / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Veterans
  • White People


  • Analgesics, Opioid