“They look at us like junkies”: influences of drug use stigma on the healthcare engagement of people who inject drugs in New York City [2020]

People who inject drugs (PWID) are a medically and socially vulnerable population with a high incidence of overdose, mental illness, and infections like HIV and hepatitis C. Existing literature describes social and economic correlations to increased health risk, including stigma. Injection drug use stigma has been identified as a major contributor to healthcare disparities for PWID. However, data on this topic, particularly in terms of the interface between enacted, anticipated, and internalized stigma, is still limited. To fill this gap, we examined perspectives from PWID whose stigmatizing experiences impacted their views of the healthcare system and syringe service programs (SSPs) and influenced their decisions regarding future medical care.

Semi-structured interviews conducted with 32 self-identified PWID in New York City. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Interview transcripts were coded using a grounded theory approach by three trained coders and key themes were identified as they emerged.

A total of 25 participants (78.1%) reported at least one instance of stigma related to healthcare system engagement. Twenty-three participants (71.9%) reported some form of enacted stigma with healthcare, 19 participants (59.4%) described anticipated stigma with healthcare, and 20 participants (62.5%) reported positive experiences at SSPs. Participants attributed healthcare stigma to their drug injection use status and overwhelmingly felt distrustful of, and frustrated with, medical providers and other healthcare staff at hospitals and local clinics. PWID did not report internalized stigma, in part due to the availability of non-stigmatizing medical care at SSPs.

Stigmatizing experiences of PWID in formal healthcare settings contributed to negative attitudes toward seeking healthcare in the future. Many participants describe SSPs as accessible sites to receive high-quality medical care, which may curb the manifestation of internalized stigma derived from negative experiences in the broader healthcare system. Our findings align with those reported in the literature and reveal the potentially important role of SSPs. With the goal of limiting stigmatizing interactions and their consequences on PWID health, we recommend that future research include explorations of mechanisms by which PWID make decisions in stigmatizing healthcare settings, as well as improving medical care availability at SSPs.

Brandon Muncan, Suzan M. Walters, Jerel Ezell & Danielle C. Ompad
Harm Reduction Journal, volume 17, Article number: 53 (2020)