Health Minister Sajid Javid has commissioned a review of possible racial biases in medical devices as he vowed to “close the gaps that the pandemic has revealed”.
It happens amid fears that thousands of patients from ethnically diverse communities have died COVID-19 when they should have survived.
Mr Javid cited research that has shown that oximeters – which monitor oxygen levels and are used to see if COVID-19 treatment is needed – are less accurate in people with darker skin.
A report released earlier this week also found sickle cell patients, who primarily have an African or Caribbean background, “all too often receive substandard care”.
The health secretary told Trevor Philips on Sunday on Sky News that health differences had been highlighted by COVID-19.
Discussing evidence that “in many cases” oximeters have “given false readings” due to darker skin tones, Mr Javid said: “There are already research articles on this and no one has done anything about it.
“Now I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just a systemic problem potentially, with medical devices, and it can go even further than that with medical textbooks, for example.”
And writing in The Sunday Times, Mr Javid added: “I am determined to take a new perspective on this position and do everything so that in this country, your health and your experience of health and care are not dictated by where you live or where you come from.
“It’s easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone gets the same experience. But technologies are created and developed by humans, and therefore bias, no matter how unintentional, can also be a problem here.
“So questions like who writes the code, how a product is tested, and who sits around the board table are critical – especially when it comes to our health.”
The independent review will also look at “other important biases”, such as gender bias, and consider whether “life-saving technologies such as MRI scanners can be made available to pregnant or breastfeeding women”.
The health secretary wrote: “One of the basic principles of our NHS is equality, and the possibility that a bias – even an unintentional one – can lead to a poorer health outcome is completely unacceptable.”
Although the pandemic has highlighted these problems, he said: “The issue of imbalances in medical devices has been exempt for far too long.”
In his article, the minister said he had “looked on with horror” testimonials from cricketers like Azeem Rafiq, who told about the racism they experienced in the sport, and told about his own experience of racism growing up.
He wrote: “The same word that was so ridiculously rejected as teasing between teammates was often used against me when I was growing up – and I can assure you, it’s not teasing that hurts.
“Although attitudes have thankfully changed a lot since then, there are still too many people in this country who find the odds unfairly stacked against them.”
The Conservative MP said he has discussed with his colleague in the US, Xavier Becerra – the first Latino to take on the role, the introduction of new standards that ensure medical devices must be tested on all races before they are allowed to be sold.
He concluded: “One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is the gift of good health.
“I want to make it my mission to close the gaps that the pandemic has revealed, to make us not just a healthier country, but also a fairer country.”
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