Published On: 11 March 2024Tags: ,

A new report published today, Equity in Medical Devices: Independent Review, has unveiled troubling biases within medical tools and devices, putting minority ethnic people, women, and those from deprived communities at risk of receiving poorer healthcare. 

The review, commissioned by former Health Secretary Sajid Javid in 2022, highlights concerns over the accuracy of pulse oximeter readings in Black and minority ethnic people. The review was called following the NHS Race and Health Observatory’s report from 2021, which highlighted its concerns that the accuracy of pulse oximeter readings from Black and minority ethnic people could be seriously compromised and misleading.

Pulse oximeters, vital in healthcare during the Covid pandemic, have been found to overestimate oxygen levels in people with darker skin tones. While this hasn’t been shown to affect care in the NHS, similar biases in the US have led to delayed diagnosis, worsened organ function, and even death among Black patients.

The Equity in Medical Device report also raises alarms about AI-based devices, which could worsen the under-diagnosis of cardiac conditions in women, perpetuate discrimination based on socioeconomic status, and contribute to under-diagnosis of skin cancers in people with darker skin tones, as medical staff are often trained on images of lighter skin.

The report demands urgent action to address these biases, with recommendations including changes in how pulse oximeter readings are interpreted and ensuring new devices are tested across diverse populations. These findings emphasise the critical need for equitable healthcare practices in device development and usage.

We welcome this report, but it is crystal clear: we need greater diversity in health research, enhanced equity considerations, and collaborative approaches. Without these measures, racial biases will persist in medical devices, clinical evaluations, and healthcare interventions; and rather than improve patient outcomes they could lead to harm. Much more needs to be done to reduce inequalities in all areas of health – in research, in diagnosis and in treatment, as well as in the use of medical devices.

Find out more about the Review and recommendations here.