Stigma at every turn: Health services experiences among people who inject drugs

Int J Drug Policy. 2018 Jul;57:104-110. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.04.004. Epub 2018 Apr 30.


Background: People who inject drugs (PWID) encounter varying forms of stigma in health services contexts, which can contribute to adverse outcomes. We explored the lived experience of stigma among PWID to elucidate pathways by which stigma influences health care access and utilization.

Methods: We conducted 46 qualitative interviews with PWID in California's Central Valley between March and December 2015, as part of a multi-phase, multi-method study examining implementation of a new pharmacy syringe access law. A "risk environment" framework guided our data collection and we used a deductive/inductive approach to analyze the qualitative data.

Results: Participants repeatedly cited the impact of stigma on syringe access, particularly in the context of meso-level pharmacist interactions. They described being denied syringe purchase as stigmatizing and embarrassing, and these experiences discouraged them from attempting to purchase syringes under the new pharmacy access law. Participants described feeling similarly stigmatized in their meso-level interactions with first responders and hospital staff, and associated this stigmatization with delayed and substandard medical care for overdoses and injection-related infections. Drug treatment was another area where stigma operated against PWID's health interests; participants described macro-level public stigma towards methadone (e.g., equating methadone treatment with illicit drug use) as discouraging participation in this evidence-based treatment modality and justifying exclusion of methadone patients from recovery support services like sober living and Narcotics Anonymous.

Conclusion: Stigma played an undeniably important role in PWID's experiences with health services access and utilization in the Central Valley. Our study illustrates the need to develop and test interventions that target drug use stigma at both structural and individual levels to minimize adverse effects on PWID health.

Keywords: Healthcare disparities; Injection drug use; Methadone; Pharmacies; Stigma; Syringe access.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Social Stigma*
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / psychology*
  • Young Adult