Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said ethnic minority patients can “trust the NHS” but warned there may be a “systemic racial bias” in health services around the world.
Javid confirmed he has commissioned a review into possible racial and gender bias after it emerged that some medical devices used during the coronavirus pandemic may have given faulty results for people with darker skin.
The health secretary told Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News that oximeters — which are used to measure blood oxygen levels through the skin — may have given “false readings” for people with darker skin.
“There are research papers already on this and no one did anything about it,” he said.
“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.”
Asked by Philips whether people with non-white people could trust the NHS, the health secretary replied: “I think we can trust the NHS.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
As part of the review, first reported by the Times, Javid will work with the United States secretary of health and human services, Xavier Becerra, to introduce measures to ensure medical devices have been tested on all races before they are sold on the market.
In an article for the Times, Javid highlighted statistics showing that black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups made up 28 per cent of critical-care admissions in England at the height of the Covid peak last winter — about double their representation in the population as a whole.
“It is easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone’s getting the same experience,” he said.
“But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too.
“For example, research has shown that oximeters, which monitor oxygen levels and are used to see whether treatment is needed for Covid-19, are less accurate on people with darker skin.
“One of the founding principles of our NHS is equality, and the possibility that a bias — even an inadvertent one — could lead to a poorer health outcome is totally unacceptable.”