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UK report reveals bias within medical tools and devices

Minority ethnic people, women and people from deprived communities are at risk of poorer healthcare because of biases within medical tools and devices, a report has revealed.

Among other findings, the Equity in Medical Devices: Independent Review has raised concerns over devices that use artificial intelligence (AI), as well as those that measure oxygen levels. The team behind the review said urgent action was needed.

Prof Frank Kee, the director of the centre for public health at Queen’s University Belfast and a co-author of the review, said: “We’d like an equity lens on the entire lifecycle of medical devices, from the initial testing, to recruitment of patients either in hospital or in the community, into the early phase studies and the implementation in the field after they are licensed,.”

The government-commissioned review was set up by Sajid Javid in 2022 when he was health secretary after concerns were raised over the accuracy of pulse oximeter readings in Black and minority ethnic people.

The widely used devices were thrown into the spotlight due to their importance in healthcare during the Covid pandemic, where low oxygen levels were an important sign of serious illness.

The report has confirmed concerns pulse oximeters overestimate the amount of oxygen in the blood of people with dark skin, noting that while there was no evidence of this affecting care in the NHS, harm has been found in the US with such biases leading to delayed diagnosis and treatment, as well as worse organ function and death, in Black patients.

The team members stress they are not calling for the devices to be avoided. Instead the review puts forward a number of measures to improve the use of pulse oximeters in people of different skin tones, including the need to look at changes in readings rather than single readings, while it also provides advice on how to develop and test new devices to ensure they work well for patients of all ethnicities.

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Source: The Guardian, 11 March 2024


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