Sajid Javid said it was ‘unacceptable’ for manufacturers to make devices that work less well on people with darker skin
"Pulse oximeters...were giving often the wrong reading for people with dark skin, because they were designed by companies where basically all they were thinking about were white people." Sajid Javid, health and social care secretary
The health and social care secretary Sajid Javid has called for an end to racial bias in medical devices.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference this week, he noted that some medical devices, such as pulse oximeters, work less well with people who have dark skin.
Pulse oximeters estimate the amount of oxygen in a person’s blood. They are clip-like devices that attach to a person’s finger, toe or earlobe that work by sending a beam of light through the body to measure blood oxygen. During the pandemic, they were widely used to monitor people’s risk of deteriorating at home, triggering a hospital referral if oxygen fell below a certain level.
But a study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the devices worked less well in Black people: “Black patients had nearly three times the frequency of occult hypoxemia that was not detected by pulse oximetry as White patients.” A rapid review by the independent NHS Race and Health Observatory in April this year uncovered research dating back to 1990 that showed “inaccurate and ambiguous” readings among people with darker skins.
At the event, organised by the Centre for Social Justice, Javid said: “It turned out that pulse oximeters, all of them that exist in the world, were giving often the wrong reading for people with dark skin, because they were designed by companies where basically all they were thinking about were white people. Why is that? Because the companies, their market was white countries with a majority of white people.”
He went on: “That is something that was picked up because of Covid. Now…is there other medical equipment that we’ve been using not just in the UK but around the world, at least in Western countries, that isn’t doing the job for people of different races?
“Because actually that’s unacceptable and that’s the important role of government for someone like me, working with my colleagues around the world, to be able to say, ‘This kind of thing has to stop’.”
Javid added that he thought it would be “quite straightforward” to put an end to the problem: “I’m sure that if I went with other health ministers from other countries around the world…and went to the biggest manufacturers, and said, ‘Can you please just make sure from now on that your equipment works for people regardless of the colour of their skin’, I don’t think there would be many companies that would say, ‘No we won’t’.”