Posted on December 29, 2022

Key Medical Devices Are Failing to Diagnose Black Patients Accurately, Research Shows

Jayla Whitfield-Anderson, Yahoo, November 30, 2022

For decades, some health care devices that are used to diagnose and treat patients have failed to provide adequate care for Black people, according to several research studies.

A group of University of Michigan researchers found that Black patients’ blood oxygen levels are three times more likely to be overestimated by pulse oximeters than white patients’.

“Pulse oximeters are less accurate for Black individuals, because [they] were historically designed and calibrated for individuals with lighter skin tones,” Thomas Valley, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo News.


At the peak of the pandemic, such inaccuracies could be life-threatening. A 2022 Johns Hopkins study found that more than 20% of Black and non-Black Hispanic patients were likely not to have their eligibility for treatment recognized by pulse oximetry, which was used as a screening tool for COVID-19 symptoms.

In that study, Black patients were found to be 29% “less likely to be recognized as eligible for COVID treatment than white patients,” Rutendo Jakachira, a second-year Ph.D. student at Brown University, told Yahoo News.


Concerns over the devices have also caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. In 2021, the agency released a safety warning concerning the use of pulse oximeters, and earlier this month, the Medical Devices Advisory Committee met to review the data. It now plans to release a revision of the recommended guidance.

Pulse oximeters are not the only devices that return inaccurate measurements of the health of Black patients. Thermal thermometers can also give unreliable readings based on the ethnicity of the patient, researchers have found.

Researchers from Emory University and the University of Hawaii recently released a study analyzing the performance of temporal thermometers in a sample of more than 4,000 Black and white patients.

“We found that in white patients, it doesn’t matter whether you use an oral or forehead thermometer, you get the same measurement. In Black patients, it absolutely matters,” Sivasubramanium Bhavani, an assistant professor at Emory University, told Yahoo News. Forehead thermometers had a 26% lower odds of missing fevers in Black patients that oral thermometers detected, he said.


“I could absolutely imagine that there are other devices out there that use similar kinds of technology, that we’d want to be extra certain to work just as well in patients with dark skin colors,” Philip Verhoef, a medical practitioner in Hawaii, told Yahoo News.


“It’s just really disappointing. I think many of us work hard to sort of combat disparities in care [and] in medicine. And it’s like, even the tools that we have for caring for patients are inherently biased, and that just makes it that much harder to provide care for everyone in an equitable fashion,” he said.