COVID-19: Machines used to monitor coronavirus patients may have racial bias – and the health sec is launching a review

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid has commissioned a review into possible racial bias in medical equipment as he promised to “close the chasms that the pandemic has exposed”.

It comes amid fears that thousands of patients from ethnically diverse communities died from COVID-19 when they should have survived.

Mr Javid referenced research that has shown that oximeters – which monitor oxygen levels and are used to see whether treatment is needed for COVID-19 – are less accurate on people with darker skin.

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The health secretary said any bias is ‘unacceptable’

A report issued earlier this week also found sickle cell patients, who are primarily from an African or Caribbean background, “too often receive substandard care”.

The health secretary told Trevor Philips On Sunday on Sky News that health disparities had been highlighted by COVID-19.

Discussing evidence that “in many cases” oximeters have been “giving false readings” because of darker skin tones, Mr Javid said: “There are research papers already on this and no one did anything about it.

“Now, I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just it’s a systemic issue potentially, with medical devices and it may go even further than that with medical textbooks, for example.”

And writing in The Sunday Times, Mr Javid added: “I’m determined to take a fresh perspective to this position, and do whatever it takes so that in this country, your health and your experience of health and care isn’t dictated by where you live or where you come from.

“It is easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone’s getting the same experience. But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too.

“So questions like who is writing the code, how a product is tested and who is sitting round the boardroom table are critical – especially when it comes to our health.”

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The independent review will also look at “other important biases”, such as gender bias and consider whether “life-saving technologies such as MRI scanners can be made accessible to pregnant or breastfeeding women”.

The health secretary wrote: “One of the founding principles of our NHS is equality, and the possibility that a bias – even an inadvertent one – could lead to a poorer health outcome is totally unacceptable.”

Although the pandemic has highlighted these issues, he said: “The issue of bias within medical devices has been ducked for far too long.”

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The health secretary says Azeem Rafiq’s words were ‘heart-rending’

In his article, the cabinet minister said he had “watched with horror” the testimony of cricketers like Azeem Rafiq, who spoke about the racism they experienced within the sport, and spoke of his own experience with racism growing up.

He wrote: “The same word that was so ludicrously dismissed as banter between teammates was used against me often when I grew up – and I can assure you, it’s not banter, it hurts.

“Although attitudes have thankfully changed a lot since then, there are still too many people in this country who find the odds unfairly stacked against them.”

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Key moments from Azeem Rafiq racism hearing

The Conservative MP said he has been discussing with his counterpart in the US, Xavier Becerra – the first Latino to take on the role, the introduction of new standards that ensure medical devices have to be tested on all races before they are allowed to be sold.

He concluded: “One of the greatest gifts that you can give anyone is the gift of good health.

“I’ll make it my mission to close the chasms that the pandemic has exposed, to make us not just a healthier country, but a fairer one too.”

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