Skip to main content

People with darker skin are 32% more likely to have pulse oximeter readings overestimate oxygen levels, report says

·2 mins

Scientists have found that pulse oximeters can be less accurate for people with darker skin tones. Pulse oximeters are devices used to estimate blood oxygen levels and pulse rate by clamping onto the patient’s finger. Research shows racial disparities in the accuracy of these devices, with Black patients more likely to have inaccurate readings. Providers often rely on pulse oximeter readings to determine whether supplemental oxygen or other treatments are needed. If these readings are inaccurate, it can delay necessary treatment and pose risks to patients. The accuracy issue arises because pulse oximeters are not calibrated for dark skin tones, which can affect how light is absorbed and lead to inaccurate readings. This issue has been recognized for a while, but the new report quantifies the extent of inaccuracy using a large dataset. The data showed that a higher percentage of Black patients had pulse oximeter readings that were at least 5 or 15 percentage points higher than their blood gas results, compared to White patients. These findings highlight the ongoing bias and failure of pulse oximeters to detect major problems in Black patients. It is crucial to address this issue and ensure the accuracy of pulse oximeters for all patients. Efforts are being made to evaluate and improve the performance of pulse oximeters for people with darker skin tones.