Racial bias in pulse oximeters may put Black patients at risk

Pulse oximeters were more often less reliable in Black patients than white patients, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine Dec.17.

Researchers compared pulse oximeter readings, an external oxygen measure, to arterial blood gas readings in a study of 10,001 patients. Results indicated that 11.7 percent of Black patients had an arterial oxygen saturation measurement under 88 percent — an unsafe level — despite pulse oximeter readings showing a 92-96 percent level. The issue also occurred for 3.6 percent of white patients. 

"Reliance on pulse oximetry to triage patients and adjust supplemental oxygen levels may place Black patients at increased risk for hypoxemia," the report said. "The variation in risk according to race necessitates the integration of pulse oximetry with other clinical and patient-reported data." 

To view the full report, click here.

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