Discrimination stands between IV drug users and much needed health care

30 Aug 2017

Author: Camila Couto e Cruz, Phd Candidate

People who inject drugs often experience discrimination from the general public, who may view their substance abuse as the result of personal weakness. Research shows that people who inject drugs also experience discrimination on a regular basis from a range of health care services, including general practitioners, pharmacies and hospitals. Within healthcare settings, these attitudes translate to increased social distance between practitioners and health care seekers, which can serve as a barrier to those needing care. 

People who inject drugs are a population already in extreme condition of social vulnerability; while seeking help for a health problem, one might be even more physically and mentally fragile. To be the victim of discrimination in such situations represents a threat to their human rights and is against the duty of care that health professionals commit to.

As well as linking discrimination to poor mental health, another distinctly problematic issue associated with discrimination in the health care setting is that people may be less willing to seek treatment for minor health issues. For example, in the case of people who inject drugs, avoidance of pharmacies due to discrimination is potentially linked with risky injecting practices. Avoiding primary health care may pose an extra burden on people’s health as well as emergency services such as hospitals and ambulance services, leading to poorer health outcomes and greater long-term public health expenses.

Alleviating these burdens and equalising health care experiences across patient cohorts requires a cultural change in the health care sector.  It is important to problematise the negative attitudes towards people who inject drugs that are shared by some health professionals and the general public. Developing familiarity with a stigmatised condition helps reduce stigma and discrimination.  Therefore, investment in training for health professionals that is focused on developing empathy with stigmatised conditions might be key to diminishing discrimination in health care environments and, consequently, improving overall health outcomes. 

For more information about this research, contact Camila Couto e Cruz.

Camila is a Phd candidate researching discrimination against people who inject drugs and health outcomes.