FDA to probe pulse oximeters amid questions of accuracy, effect of COVID-19 on people of color

Physicians are less likely to detect serious cases of COVID-19 among people of color because of false pulse oximeter readings, provoking the FDA to discuss the issue with an advisory panel scheduled for later this year, according to Politico

Experts told Politico pulse oximeters don't work as well with dark skin because they shoot light on a patient's fingertip and record the amount of light that bounces back — a problem that some say is one of many when it comes to healthcare inequities.

The device's inaccurate readings can disqualify racial minorities from gaining access to vigorous COVID-19 treatments, a recent study found. 

The research noted that compared to white COVID-19 patients, pulse oximeter measurements overestimated oxygen levels by 1.2 percentage points among Black patients, 1.1 percentage points among Hispanic patients and 1.7 percentage points among Asian patients. The study analyzed more than 1,000 cases between March 2020 and November 2020. 

When it came to prescribing treatments, Black patients were about 30 percent less likely than their white counterparts to get treatment, and Hispanic patients were about 20 percent less likely. The study did not find a significant difference for Asian patients. 

COVID-19 hospitalization rates are three times higher for Native Americans, 2.3 times higher for Black populations and 2.2 times higher for Hispanic and Latino populations when compared to rates for white populations, according to the CDC. Death rates, respectively, are 2.1 times, 1.7 times and 1.8 times higher.


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