Racial Bias In Medical Devices May Have Caused Black People To Suffer Disproportionately From COVID-19 In UK
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said oximeters have been "giving false readings."
November 21, 2021 at 4:20 pm
Pulse oximeters, the devices which measure blood oxygen levels through the skin, are believed to be part of the problem. According to the Associated Press, researchers said the tool doesn't work well on darker skin, U.S. News reports.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said oximeters have been "giving false readings" in many cases because of darker skin tones.
“There are research papers already on this and no one did anything about it," Javid told Sky News. "Now, I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just, it’s a systemic issue potentially, with medical devices, and it may go even further than that, with medical textbooks, for example.”
At the height of the pandemic, a third of intensive care admissions in Britain were people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, according to Javid.
“The possibility that a bias — even an inadvertent one — could lead to a poorer health outcome is totally unacceptable,” the health secretary wrote in The Sunday Times.
Javid plans to work with officials in various countries, including U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, to address bias in the health system.
"It is easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone's getting the same experience. But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too," Javid wrote. "So questions like who is writing the code, how a product is tested and who is sitting round the boardroom table are critical — especially when it comes to our health."
The health secretary has also ordered a review that will look at "other important biases," such as gender bias. In addition, the review will consider whether "life-saving technologies such as MRI scanners can be made accessible to pregnant or breastfeeding women."
"The issue of bias within medical devices has been ducked for far too long," Javid told Sky News.
Speaking with the BBC, Javid said it's possible that people may have died due to bias in medical devices, but he doesn't "have the full facts."
"This is systemic across the world," he added, according to Reuters. "This is about a racial bias in some medical instruments. It's unintentional but it exists, and oximeters are a really good example of that."
According to The Guardian, researchers have concluded that oximeters can overestimate the amount of oxygen in the blood.
“As a result, you were less likely to end up on oxygen if you were Black or brown, because the reading was just wrong,” Javid told The Guardian.