Context. “Disparity” and “inequity” are two interdependent, yet distinct concepts that inform our discourse on ethics and morals in pain medicine practice and in health policy. Disparity implies a difference of some kind, whereas inequity implies unfairness and injustice. An overwhelming body of literature documents racial/ethnic disparities in health. The debate on health disparities is generally formulated using the principle of “horizontal equity,” which requires that individuals having the same needs be treated equally. While some types of health treatments are amenable to the principle of horizontal equity, others may not be appropriately studied in this way. The existing research surrounding racial/ethnic disparities in pain treatment presents a conceptual predicament when placed within the framework of horizontal equity.
Objective. Using pain treatment as a prototype, we advance the conceptual debate about racial/ethnic disparities in health. More specifically, we ask three questions: (1) When may disparities be considered inequities? (2) When may disparities not be considered inequities? (3) What are the uncertainties in the disparity–inequity discourse?
Discussion. Significant policy implications may result from the manner in which health disparities are conceptualized. Increasingly, researchers and policy makers use the term disparity interchangeably with inequity. This usage confuses the meaning and application of these distinct concepts. In a given health care setting, different types of disparities may operate simultaneously, each requiring serious scrutiny to avoid categorical interpretation leading to misguided practice and policy. While the science of pain treatment disparities is still emerging, the authors present one perspective toward the conceptualization of racial/ethnic disparities in pain treatment.