Clinical Review

Racial Differences in Adherence to Prescribed Analgesia in Cancer Patients: An Integrated Review of Quantitative Research



From the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Philadelphia, PA.


  • Background: Racial/ethnic disparities in analgesic treatment for pain have been widely documented in the United States. However, the connection between race/ethnicity and adherence to prescribed analgesics has not been described.
  • Objectives: To review and synthesize quantitative research documenting racial/ethnic differences in adherence to prescribed analgesia in cancer patients.
  • Methods: We performed a systematic search of quantitative, primary studies in Scopus, CINAHL, PubMed, Ovid, PsychInfo, and EMBASE. The title and abstract of each article was reviewed for relevance and whether inclusion criteria were met. Evidence was examined for relevant outcomes, data collection methods, variables studied in relation to adherence, and the magnitude of association between race/ethnicity and adherence.
  • Results: Seven studies met inclusion criteria. Reported rates of adherence varied in studies among Hispanic/Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and whites based on variation in measurement tools, research questions, populations from which participants were recruited, and predictive variables analyzed. Most existing studies of analgesic adherence used self-report to measure adherence. Only 1 study used a validated, real-time electronic instrument to monitor prescribed opioid adherence and had a longitudinal study design.
  • Conclusion: Limited research has examined relationships between adherence to prescribed analgesic regimens and racial disparities. Existing studies point to the clinical and socioeconomic factors that may interact with race/ethnicity in explaining analgesic and opioid adherence outcomes in cancer patients.

Key words: race, ethnicity, adherence, opiates, analgesics, pain management, cancer, pain treatment disparities.

The ongoing opioid epidemic and recent development of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for chronic pain management have shaped a national conversation on opioid prescription and utilization [1]. The CDC delineates provider recommendations for opioid prescription. This focus on prescribed medication regimens is inadequate without an understanding of how patients take or adhere to prescribed medications. Cancer patients are a unique group. Moderate to severe pain in cancer patients is usually treated with opioids, and adherence to analgesia has been conceptualized a key mediator of cancer pain outcomes. For instance, a recent study found that patterns of analgesic adherence, specifically, inconsistent adherence to strong opioids (World Health Organization step 3), is one of the strongest predictors of health care utilization among outpatients with cancer pain [2]. Approximately 67% to 77% of cancer patients experience pain that requires management with analgesia [3], especially in the absence of access to nonpharmacologic pain treatments [2]. Thus, barriers in relation to adequate pain management can result in poor pain treatment outcomes and impaired quality of life for cancer patients.

Insufficient pain management has been found to have a negative impact on the quality of life and physical and mental functions of patients with cancer [4]. Patients who experience severe cancer pain are significantly more likely to experience multiple other symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and insomnia, resulting in diminished physical function [5], social role function [6], and greater out of pocket cost of managing pain and asso-ciated symptoms [7]. Minority populations, however, disproportionately carry the burden of undertreated pain [4,8–11,13–16]. Evidence suggests that blacks/African Americans are more likely to experience unrelieved cancer pain [4,8–11,13–16]. They are also less likely than their white counterparts to receive analgesic treatment for cancer pain [8–11,13,15,16]. Little is known, however, about racial disparities in relation to adherence to analgesia for cancer pain when providers prescribe analgesics.


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