Racial Disparities in Pulse Oximeter Readings

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Courtesy of slgckgc (Flickr CC0)

A recent study found that Black people are more likely to receive inaccurate readings from fingertip pulse oximeters. They are also less likely to have these devices checked by a doctor, which is a significant problem since these false readings can have serious consequences.

Pulse oximeters are small medical gadgets that attach to the fingertips and calculate the quantity of blood oxygen. They are frequently found in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and for people fighting COVID-19 at home.

The pulse oximeter devices have also become essential to the hospital routine and diagnosing and treating respiratory illnesses.

Recent studies have found that pulse oximeters overrate blood oxygen levels in people with dark skin. This device is crucial for critically sick patients, where doctors use readings to make oxygen-related treatment decisions.

According to some research, unreliable pulse oximeter readings may harm the brain and kidneys in COVID-19-positive patients.

Pulse oximetry is inaccurate during the transcutaneous blood oxygenation process because of the tendency to supply inaccurate oxygenation readings among racial minorities.

Courtesy of Nenad Stojkovic (Flickr CC0)

A few years after the introduction of pulse oximeters in the 1980s, researchers noticed that it was unreliable in Black patients. The issue resurfaced during the recent flu pandemic, which prompted more people to use the device and revealed existing racial health disparities.

A recent study found that today’s pulse oximeters were not calibrated to measure the hemoglobin level in darker skin tones since the sensors were developed from a diverse group of light-skinned, healthy individuals.

According to Dr. Iwashyna, professor of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University, some pulse oximeter manufacturers claim that their products are precise. However, if their data is unalarming, how do they explain the frequent occurrence of this problem in critically ill patients?

Researchers found racial maternal health disparities in hypertension and preeclampsia in May 2022. According to their research, Black pregnant women are more likely to be afflicted by hypertension and preeclampsia than other women. Because of this discovery, researchers urged organizations to take action to eliminate racial disparities by screening and intervention.

Health care devices, such as predictive algorithms and medications, must be designed more inclusively to achieve comparable measurement accuracy regardless of race and ethnicity.

There is a need for greater labeling transparency in all patient care devices, including a comprehensive description of the groups on which they were evaluated. In addition, the authors recommend that all healthcare devices be tested and calibrated more rigorously to achieve a more equitable healthcare population.

Written by Janet Grace Ortigas
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware

Journalists Resource: Racial disparities in pulse oximeter readings: Research roundup; by Naseem S. Miller
mHealth Intelligence: Racial Disparities Exist in Pulse Oximeter Readings; by Mark Melchionna
JAMA Network: Racial and Ethnic Discrepancy in Pulse Oximetry and Delayed Identification of Treatment Eligibility Among Patients With COVID-19; by Ashraf Fawzy, MD, MPH, Tianshi David Wu, MD, MHS, Kunbo Wang, MS

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of slgckgc’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Nenad Stojkovic‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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