Study: Pulse oximeter readings are flawed, biased toward Black skin

(KRON) — Inaccurate readings of blood oxygen levels may have led to a disproportionate amount of deaths in people of color being treated for COVID-19. That’s according to a recent study by Sutter Health.

A new study released by Sutter Health in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that pulse oximeters, the non-invasive device that often sits on fingertips, are biased towards Black skin.

The research finds it overestimates the amount of oxygen in blood, which has led to delays in COVID-19 treatment for Black people.

“In real time, in the emergency department, not being able to trust the devices that we have, the tools that we have, to practice medicine, regardless of our intent, and our intent is never to do harm, that was a scary feeling every day,” said Stephanie Brown of Sutter Health.

During a virtual news conference Thursday, Sutter Health clinicians explained the device’s inaccurate readings on darker skin have delayed patient access to supplemental oxygen treatment by four and a half hours — along with access to a steroid that reduces inflammation in the lungs by 37 minutes.

“Having this device, which is the primary device that was used to decide if someone should even go to the hospital or be admitted or be treated is just absolutely devastating,” said Noha Aboelata of the Roots Community Health Center.

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Ultimately, Sutter Health’s research says pulse oximeters cannot be trusted.

“The FDA should really evaluate its policies around approving pulse oximeters for clinical use,” Brown said.

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