Pulse oximeter flaws may have delayed COVID-19 treatment for Black patients: study

Black COVID-19 patients may have faced 4.5-hour treatment delays due to pulse oximeters' inability to accurately read their blood oxygen levels, according to researchers at Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health. 

For 30 years, medical literature has documented that pulse oximeters overestimate blood oxygenation in individuals with darker pigmented skin, according to a study shared with Becker's on Sept. 28. However, the clinical impacts of this discrepancy have not been heavily investigated, a Sutter Health spokesperson said Sept. 28 in a statement shared with Becker's

Using EHR data from the health system, researchers analyzed blood oxygen saturation levels taken from 8,626 Black and 35,127 white individuals, as well as data from 8,735 adults who visited the emergency department with COVID-19 between July 2020 and February 2021. 

The study revealed pulse oximeters overestimated Black individuals' blood oxygenation by 1 percent, thus lowering their admission probability by 3.1 percent and access to dexamethasone and supplemental oxygen treatments by 3.1 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. 

Researchers identified an increased time to initiate treatment — 37.2 extra minutes to administer dexamethasone and 278.5 extra minutes to administer supplemental oxygen — due to the pulse oximeters' false readings. 

Despite pulse oximeters' shortcomings, Black patients were 12.9 percent more likely to have their blood oxygen saturation levels measured prior to an admission or discharge decision, according to the study. 

 

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