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Potential race and gender bias in medical tech to be investigated in rapid review

by Isabel Shaw
22 November 2021

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A review has been commissioned into possible race and gender bias in the design and use of medical devices.

This comes as research has suggested that darker-skinned patients are at greater risk of inaccurate results from oximeters due to a tendency for this group to present higher levels of oxygen in their blood.

Pulse oximeters are used to detect early signs of dangerous reductions in oxygen levels in both hospital and community settings. They have been specifically recommended for patients who are recovering from Covid at home.

Ministers want to know whether bias could have prevented ethnic minority patients receiving appropriate Covid treatment. 

Speaking on the Andrew Marr show yesterday (21 November), health secretary Sajid Javid said racially-biased medical instruments ‘cannot be acceptable at any level’.  

He said that the bias is ‘unintentional’ but ‘exists’ in numerous devices used by the NHS.   

When asked whether he believed people had died of Covid as a result of bias in medical devices Mr Javid said: ‘possibly yes.’.  

‘A lot of these medical devices are put together in majority-white counties and I think this is a systemic issue’, he explained.  

It follows a Government review into the disparities in risks and outcomes of Covid-19 published in June 2020 that found that the risk of dying from Covid is higher in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups than in white ethnic groups

The review will also consider the use of other devices including MRI scanners, which are currently not recommended for use for pregnant or breastfeeding women. The review seeks to research how to expand the scope of MRI use for women. 

An independent chairman to lead the review is yet to be appointed, but the initial findings are expected by the end of January. 

In August, NHS England updated their guidance oximeters after emerging evidence suggested that pulse oximeters produced ‘inaccurate and ambiguous readings’ for people with darker skin. 

In April, NHS Race and Health Observatory published a rapid review on the limitations of oximeters for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. It found that the device can produce inaccurate readings for people with darker or pigmented skin as they may show higher readings of the oxygen level in the blood.   

Last year, The Pharmacist reported that Black and Asian patients with dementia in the UK received a worse quality of care than white patients due to differences in prescribing. 

This story first appeared on our sister title, The Pharmacist.