Faulty oxygen readings delayed Covid treatments for darker-skinned patients, study finds

Covid-19 care was delayed for Black and Hispanic patients due to inaccurate oxygen readings from devices that can work poorly in darker-skinned people, a new study finds.

Covid-19 care, including distribution of lifesaving therapies, was significantly delayed for Black and Hispanic patients due to inaccurate oxygen readings from devices that can work poorly in darker-skinned individuals, according to a study published Tuesday. The finding may be one reason much higher Covid-19 mortality rates have been seen in communities of color across the United States.

Widely used pulse oximeters, which measure oxygen levels by assessing the color of the blood, have been under increasing scrutiny for racial bias because they can overestimate blood oxygen levels in darker-skinned individuals and make them appear healthier than they actually are. A 2020 study comparing oxygen levels measured by the devices with readings taken from “gold standard” arterial blood samples found pulse oximeters were three times less likely to detect low oxygen levels in Black patients than in white patients. Two months after that report, the Food and Drug Administration issued a safety communication alerting patients and clinicians that the devices could be erroneous in those with dark skin.

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