December 5, 2021

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid says there may be ‘totally unacceptable’ systemic racial bias in healthcare

Health Secretary Sajid Javid says there may be ‘totally unacceptable’ systemic racial bias in healthcare
Systemic racial bias may be a feature in health services across the world, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has admitted after he commissioned a review to look into racial and gender bias in medical devices.

When quizzed on whether the launch of the commission is an admission that our health services have a “systemic undeclared racial bias”, Mr Javid agreed.

“There may actually be in health services across the world a systemic racial bias and I’m sad to say,” he told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday.

“This came about because there are lots of health disparities in our country, there are in many countries, and we saw that quite acutely during the Covid crisis.”

A third of admissions in ICUs at the height of crisis were Black and minority ethnic people – more than double the representation of the population, he said.

He said one issue was with a medical device called an oximeter, which monitors oxygen levels in the blood, and which he said “in many cases was giving false readings” because of darker skin tones.

He said: “There are research papers already on this and no one did anything about it.

“Now, I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just it’s a systemic issue potentially, with medical devices and it may go even further than that with medical textbooks, for example.”

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The Health Secretary launched the review after research showed that oximeters, a key piece of equipment to monitor Covid-19 patients, are less accurate on people with darker skin.

Public Health England data showed Black, Asian and minority ethnic people were at a disproportionate risk of catching and dying from Covid-19, in some cases two to four times higher compared to England’s white population, according to leading medical journal The Lancet.

Mr Javid said it is “totally unacceptable” that even an inadvertent bias could lead to a poorer health outcome for some people.

But he was adamant that everyone should be able to trust the NHS.

“I think we can trust the NHS,” the Health Secretary said.

“But I think… of course we can and the NHS has been there for all of us for decades now and helped every community in Britain and that’s of course, something that is right.

“But we should always be looking to see what can be done to improve things and this particular issue about racial bias in medical instruments, it’s global.”

The Health Secretary announced the launch of the review in The Sunday Times, where he said:

“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. But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too.

“So questions like who is writing the code, how a product is tested and who is sitting round the boardroom table are critical – especially when it comes to our health.”

Mr Javid said the independent review he has started will also look at “other important biases such as gender bias”, in considering such things as ensuring “lifesaving technologies such as MRI scanners can be made accessible to pregnant or breastfeeding women”.


It comes as the Health Secretary launches a review into possible racial and gender bias in medical devices