UK launches review of racial, gender biases in medical devices, sparked by disproportionate COVID deaths

A vial with a check mark indicating COVID-19 positivity
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid launched the probe—with results expected by the end of January—after an analysis of the U.K.’s health data showed members of the country’s ethnic minority groups were several times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Brits were. (Pixabay)

As the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on, analyses of health data from the U.S., the U.K. and beyond have found that nonwhite patients are dying from the virus at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. That disparity has been attributed to a variety of causes, from the former group’s greater likelihood of working and living in higher-risk situations to the long-standing racial biases that have long plagued the medical field.

One study, published earlier this year in the Lancet, analyzed the racial makeup of more than 11,600 Brits who died from the coronavirus between Feb. 1 and Aug. 3 of 2020, with those patients broken down into white, Black, South Asian, mixed ethnicity and “other ethnicity” groups. During that time, according to the study’s authors, “risk of COVID-19-related death was increased by 22-51% in the four broad minority ethnic groups relative to the white group.”

The U.K. is now aiming to dig even deeper into the reasons for the higher-than-expected death rate for Black Brits and those of other ethnic minorities. Sajid Javid, the U.K.’s secretary of state for health and social care, announced Sunday the launch of an investigation into whether biases embedded into medical devices are to blame.

Javid called for the review based on the analyses of COVID-related deaths and on the U.K. National Health Service’s recent warning that pulse oximeters—which measure oxygen levels by beaming light through the skin and are a crucial tool for monitoring coronavirus patients—may not be as effective when used on patients with darker skin tones.

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That and other biases that contribute to inequality are “totally unacceptable,” Javid wrote in a Sunday Times essay announcing the review.

“I want to make sure that the benefits of the incredible advances in technology and treatments we’ve seen in recent years are widely shared, so they help not hinder this work. It is easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone’s getting the same experience,” he wrote. “But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too.”

He continued, “The pandemic has brought this issue to the fore, but the issue of bias within medical devices has been ducked for far too long. Although we have very high standards for these technologies in this country—and people should keep coming forward for the treatment they need—we urgently need to know more about the bias in these devices, and what impact it is having on the front line.”

To that effect, the independent review will examine first where bias exists in medical devices currently on the market—including whether it stems from existing regulations—and then how it can be eradicated. The probe will look not only for racial biases but also any flaws that may be creating disparities between genders, with Javid noting that, for example, the reviewers may suggest ways to make MRI scanners and other devices more accessible to pregnant and breastfeeding women.

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Alongside applying the investigation’s findings to the U.K.’s healthcare system, Javid said he also plans to work with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and their counterparts from other countries “so we can shape what sits behind these valuable technologies.”

The probe is set to move quickly, with initial findings returned by the end of January, Javid’s department said in a statement. The review will cover “all devices,” and its lead investigator is expected to be named “in due course.”