Language Barriers May Contribute to Pain Management Disparities

Tara Haelle

June 10, 2021

Obstetric patients whose first language is not English received fewer pain assessments and fewer doses of NSAIDs and oxycodone therapeutic equivalents (OTEs) following cesarean deliveries, according to a retrospective cohort study poster presented at the 2021 annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The findings "may indicate language as a barrier for equitable pain management in the postpartum period," concluded Alison Wiles, MD, a resident at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, N.Y., and colleagues. They recommended "scheduled pain assessment and around the clock nonopioid medication administration" as potential ways to reduce the disparities.

"Racial and ethnic disparities in pain management have been well documented in both inpatient and outpatient settings, [and] similar disparities exist within postpartum pain management," the researchers note in their background material. They also note that non-Hispanic White communities tend to have a higher incidence of opioid misuse.

The researchers conducted a retrospective study of 327 women who had cesarean deliveries from January to June 2018 at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital. They excluded women who underwent cesarean hysterectomies, received general anesthesia or patient-controlled analgesia, had a history of drug use, or had allergies to opiates. They did not note incidence of uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or other gynecologic conditions aside from delivery that could cause pain.

The population included a similar number of non-Hispanic White women (n = 111) and Hispanic women (n = 125). The remaining study participants included 32 non-Hispanic Black women and 59 women who were Asian or had another race/ethnicity. The women's average age was 31, which was statistically similar across all four race/ethnicity groups. Average body mass index of participants was also similar, ranging from 32 to 34.6 kg/m2, across all four demographic groups.

About half of all the women (52%) had a previous cesarean delivery, but rates were significantly different between groups: 31% of non-Hispanic Black women and 58% of Hispanic women had a prior cesarean, compared to 50% of non-Hispanic White, Asian, and other women (P < .05).

Half the women in the study overall (50.5%) had public insurance, but the proportion of those with public insurance differed significantly by racial/ethnic demographics. Less than a quarter of Asian/other women (23%) had public insurance, compared with 78% of Hispanic women, 74% of non-Hispanic White women, and 59% of non-Hispanic Black women (P < .0001).

Most of the women (76%) spoke English as their primary language, which included nearly all the women in each demographic group except Hispanic, in which 58% of the women's primary language was Spanish or another language (P < .0001).

Hispanic patients received an average of 10 pain assessments after their cesarean, compared with an average of 11 in each of the other demographic groups (P = .02). Similarly, English speakers received an average 11 pain assessments, but those who primarily spoke Spanish or another language received 10 (P = .01).

The differences between English and non-English speakers were reflected in who received pain medication even though pain scores were the same between the two groups. English speakers received an average two doses of NSAIDs in the first 24 hours post partum, compared with one dose for those who spoke a primary language other than English (P = .03). At 24-48 hours post partum, those who spoke English received an average three NSAID doses, compared with two among those whose primary language was Spanish or another language (P = .03).

There was no difference between language groups in doses of OTEs in the first 24 hours post partum, but differences did occur on the second day. Women who primarily spoke English received an average four OTE doses in the 24-48 hours post partum, compared with two doses given to women who spoke a non-English primary language (P = .03).

Differences were less consistent or not significant when looking solely at race/ethnicity. All four groups received an average of two NSAID doses in the first 24 hours post partum, but second-day rates varied. Non-Hispanic White women and Asian/other women received an average three doses from 24 to 48 hours post partum while non-Hispanic Black women received one and Hispanic women received two (P = .0009).

No statistically significant differences in OTE doses occurred across the groups in the first 24 hours, but from 24 to 48 hours, the average two doses received by Hispanic women and 3 doses received by Asian women differed significantly from the average four doses received by non-Hispanic White women and the average five doses received by non-Hispanic Black women (P =.01).

"Non-Hispanic Black patients had higher OTE doses and fewer NSAID doses in the 24- to 48-hour postpartum period despite no differences in severe pain scores," the authors also reported.

"These findings are surprising given the standardized protocols in place designed to assess and treat pain post partum," Etoi A. Garrison, MD, PhD, an associate professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Memphis, Tenn., said in an interview. " Protocols should minimize bias and promote equitable delivery of care."

Garrison said it's important to find out why these discrepancies exist even when ready access to interpretation services exist in the hospital.

"An important component of health care disparity research is to hear directly from patients themselves about their experiences," Garrison said. "Often the patient voice is an overlooked and underappreciated resource. I hope that future iterations of this work include patient perceptions about the adequacy of postpartum care and provide more information about how health care delivery can be tailored to the unique needs of this vulnerable population."

The authors reported no disclosures. Garrison reported receiving a grant from the State of Tennessee Maternal Mortality Review Committee to Create an Unconscious Bias Faculty Train-the-Trainer Program.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.