Research has shown that racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to be prescribed lifesaving addiction treatment options than are white people and even when Black and Hispanic patients start a prescription for buprenorphine — the most popular medication to help those in recovery fight cravings — the typical duration of their treatment is shorter than that of white patients, according to a new analysis published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, reports the New York Times. The analysis, which sorted through 15 years of prescription data by race and ethnicity, also showed that the percentage of minority patients who remained on buprenorphine for more than 180 days — the minimum recommended duration — was significantly below that of white patients. Racial and ethnic gaps in the length of treatment have consistently widened. The divide reflects structural barriers — such as inconsistent employment or medical care — that some groups face even after they begin working toward recovery.
The new analysis is part of an ongoing research project that aims to “dig into the granular data for really specific measures of effectiveness — like treatment duration — that could set the stage for eventually closing the gaps,” said Mohammad Jalali, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who co-wrote the paper. Medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder has been debated because drugs like buprenorphine (also known by the brand name Suboxone) and methadone are also opioids. Some officials worry that the approach encourages drug use. Researchers say the medications, which don’t produce a high at prescribed doses, are vital to satisfying cravings and reducing withdrawal symptoms as patients seek to recover from addiction. The medicines have been shown to reduce the mortality rate among people addicted to opioids by at least half. The duration of treatment is a helpful measure of a patient’s quality of care, the study’s authors said, because longer treatments — particularly those that last more than six months — are associated with better long-term clinical outcomes.