The health secretary is launching a review into systemic racism and bias in medical devices to examine why people of colour and women have worse health outcomes.
In a partnership with Sajid Javid’s US counterpart, the review will look at introducing new international standards to ensure medical devices have been tested on people of all races before they are allowed to be sold.
Research shows devices such as oximeters, which estimate the amount of oxygen in a person’s blood, work less effectively for patients with darker skin and could have contributed to thousands of unnecessary deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Javid said: “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: “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.”
The review, he said, would also focus on gender bias, covering, for example, how MRI scanners can be made accessible to pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Javid, who is the first health secretary of colour, will be working with Xavier Becerra, the US health secretary and the first Latino to take on the role.
The launch of the review comes after Public Health England data showed that deaths from coronavirus among people of colour were two to four times greater than those among the white population in England, according to a paper in the Lancet.
Last year, a report by the Labour peer Doreen Lawrence also found there were thousands of avoidable deaths during the pandemic and made 20 recommendations to improve patient care for marginalised communities.
She criticised the government for a lack of action since 2010, when the Marmot review found gaping health inequalities and recommended an urgent national strategy be implemented, including better training and clear government accountability for progress.