A review has been commissioned into possible racial and gender bias in medical devices.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has ordered the review as he vowed to “close the chasms that the pandemic has exposed”, adding that it is “totally unacceptable” that even an inadvertent bias could lead to a poorer health outcome for some people.
Mr Javid said he is “determined to take a fresh perspective” to his role within government and “do whatever it takes” to fix disparities, citing the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups.
It comes as research found oximeters, which help spot early signs of dangerous falls in oxygen levels in Covid patients so they can be given urgent care, are less accurate on people with dark skin.
Mr Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that people may have died because of the inaccurate oximeter readings.
Asked whether lives could have been lost, he said: “I think possibly yes. These oximeters are being used in every country and they have the same problem and the reason is that a lot of these medical devices, some of the drugs, the textbooks, the procedures, most of them are put together in majority-white countries and I think there is a systemic issue.”
Writing in The Sunday Times, Mr Javid 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.”
He added: “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.”
The minister, who said he “watched with horror” the testimony of cricketers last week who had been victims of racism in the game, spoke of his own experience growing up.
He wrote: “The same word that was so ludicrously dismissed as banter between teammates was used against me often when I grew up — and I can assure you, it’s not banter, it 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.”
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”.
He said: “One of the greatest gifts that you can give anyone is the gift of good health.
“I’ll make it my mission to close the chasms that the pandemic has exposed, to make us not just a healthier country, but a fairer one too.”
Additional reporting by Press Association.
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