Unequal prescribing of opioid and non-opioid analgesics among demographic groups contributes to two major health disparities in the United States. Overprescribing of opioid analgesics to treat both acute and chronic nonmalignant pain, especially in non-Hispanic whites, has fueled the opioid abuse epidemic. Underprescribing of opioid and non-opioid analgesics in minorities and women, even when their use is medically indicated (e.g., acute and cancer pain), reduces the effectiveness of pain management in these groups. In order to mitigate analgesic prescribing disparities and the associated risks of opioid abuse and poor pain management, we must understand the mechanisms underlying these disparities. The current project will test two potential contributors to these pain treatment disparities: 1) clinicians' inaccurate demographic stereotypes about pain sensitivity and tendency to abuse opioids (i.e., the stereotype hypothesis), and 2) reduced activation of clinicians' pain-related neural systems (e.g., anterior cingulate and anterior insula) in response to the pain of demographic outgroup patients (i.e., the vicarious pain hypothesis). Prior studies of mechanisms underlying analgesic prescribing disparities have been limited by the use of experimental paradigms that were low in ecological validity e.g. asking participants to make prescribing decisions based solely on text-based medical vignettes or depictions of individuals feigning pain. Additionally, although the robust fMRI literature on vicarious pain biases is related to biases in pain assessment, vicarious pain biases have not been tested as a potential contributor to biases pain treatment decisions. In the present proposal, these methodological limitations will be addressed and the stereotype and vicarious pain hypotheses will be tested through 3 specific aims.
Aim 1 involves the design and production of a more ecologically valid video-based simulated pain assessment and treatment paradigm depicting individuals experiencing genuine pain.
Aim 2 includes an fMRI study of the effects of clinicians' (medical students') vicarious pain responses and pain stereotypes on demographic biases in simulated pain assessment and analgesic prescribing, using the video paradigm created in Aim 1. Finally, to determine the clinical applicability of the findings from Aim 2, Aim 3 includes face-to-face pain assessments and treatment recommendations during simulated clinical interactions with standardized patient actors. If the aims of this proposal are achieved, these studies will yield new understanding of the relative contributions of pain-related stereotypes and vicarious pain to analgesic prescribing disparities. These results could indicate whether pain stereotype education, efforts to increase pain empathy, or both should be incorporated into clinician interventions aimed at reducing analgesic prescribing disparities. Through this K01 career development award, the candidate will gain facility in three areas not included in her past training: clinical pain assessment and treatment, multivariate statistical analysis, and behavioral medicine in order to more effectively understand psychosocial and neurobiological mechanisms underlying health disparities in pain and pain management.
The need for effective interventions to reduce overprescribing of opioids grows more urgent as the number of individuals affected by the opioid crisis continues to rise, and the need to improve pain management in minority populations becomes more critical as minority populations in the U.S. grow. The proposed research uses a novel combination of neurobiological (fMRI) and behavioral measures to investigate mechanisms underlying clinicians' gender and ethnic biases in opioid and non-opioid analgesic pain treatment decisions. The findings of this research can inform improvements in clinician training aimed as mitigating analgesic prescribing disparities and the associated risks of opioid abuse and poor pain management.