When we need medical treatment, we expect any equipment used to work. But, shockingly, some gadgets have recently been found to be less effective on darker-skinned people.
For example, a pulse oximeter — a device that’s put on the fingertip to measure oxygen levels — doesn’t work well on darker skin tones.
This is because of the way light is absorbed by the tissues of the finger. Dark skin absorbs more light, so the pulse oximeter will give a different reading than a light-skinned person.
I worked on a campaign with a global medical technology company, Masimo, to warn ethnic minorities that many such devices on the market have only been tested on white skin.
They can therefore give erroneous results – which can then endanger health.
I’m furious that a device used daily by doctors for one of the most basic health checks is inherently racist.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has launched a review of racial bias in medical equipment amid fears that thousands of ethnic minority patients have died of Covid who should have survived.
Research has shown that patients most at risk of becoming very ill from Covid are best identified by oxygen levels. Javid wrote: ‘I am determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that in this country your health and your experience of health and care is not dictated by where you live or where you are from … I want to correct these disparities wherever I find them.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the color of my skin would affect me and people of my heritage in such a negative health-related way.
I took it for granted that any medical equipment would be fine for us because in the research and development of the product, testing would have been done on a group that included people of color.
Founder of a skincare brand myself, I test my products on all skin types. I know that brown and black skin can be a lot drier, so they need oil-based products in different amounts than Caucasian skin.
The reason this issue hits me so hard is because my mother is the key demographic whose life could have been in danger had I not been vigilant.
She is recovering from prolapse surgery and taking strong opioids. Measuring your blood oxygen is vital, because people on strong opioids are in real danger of seeing their oxygen levels drop, which can be fatal.
So I had to get him an oximeter.
If I hadn’t worked with Masimo, I could have picked any oximeter and assumed it would work as well on her as it did on my 85-year-old white mother-in-law. Not so.
I want to share this information with people of color so they can make sure their lives are no longer in danger.