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Social Stigma and the Dilemmas of Providing Care to Substance Users in a Safety-Net Emergency Department


There has been increasing interest in how social stigma affects health care delivery to vulnerable patients but few examples of the dilemmas that may arise for providers who care for stigma-vulnerable populations. Using qualitative data, the authors examine care delivery in a safety-net emergency department where many patients were socially disadvantaged and vulnerable to stigma because of substance use problems. Analysis of our data revealed five themes related to the dilemmas of providing care for this patient population: 1) providers valued assisting vulnerable and underserved patients; 2) providers’ interactions with patients could be challenging; 3) providers did not know if substance involved patients provided accurate medical histories; 4) providers were concerned about drug-seeking behavior; and 5) providers had to balance substance-involved patients’ needs with the necessity of managing limited resources. We discuss how these themes relate to care dynamics and social stigma in the safety-net setting.

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