Revisiting the relationship between contact and physician attitudes toward patients with opioid use disorder

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Introduction: Prior research suggests that some physicians hold negative attitudes toward patients who misuse opioids and that this serves as a barrier which limits the availability and effectiveness of health care services. Interventions which improve physicians’ attitudes have thus garnered attention, many of which have focused on increasing contact between physicians and patients who misuse opioids. However, drawing on recent literature on intergroup contact, the current paper argues that contact may not have uniformly positive effects on prejudice. Methods: We surveyed 408 board-certified physicians in the state of Ohio where many opioid overdose deaths have been concentrated. We used regression to test for interactions between contact and three focal variables, bias, burnout, and stress, on physician willingness to work with patients who misuse opioids. Results: The negative relationships between bias, physician burnout, and stress induced by working with patients who misuse opioids and physicians’ willingness to work with this patient population are each exacerbated when contact with patients who misuse opioids is high. Conclusions: Although intervention studies have shown promise for the role that increased contact may have in reducing stigma toward patients who misuse opioids, these interventions may not be appropriate for physicians who are experiencing strain or who hold preexisting negative attitudes toward this patient population. Future interventions may need to target bias, burnout, and stress, in addition to facilitating contact, to increase physician willingness to work with these patients.