Pulse Oximeter Readings May Be Inaccurate in People of Color


Pulse Oximeters Are Fooled by Darker Skin Tones

Health Editor’s Note: Shocking news, but maybe the reason why there is a disproportionate number of black patients, Hispanics, and Native Americans who succumb to COVID-19.

The medical community relies on the simple, commonly used, noninvasive pulse oximeter to determine the level of oxygen in the blood, especially during this pandemic (COVID-19 pneumonia) when low blood oxygen levels will determine if someone needs to be admitted to the hospital for supplemental oxygen or more invasive procedures such as to be ventilated. 

In black patients, these devices give inaccurate results in one out of 10 people. How does a pulse oximeter work? It detects the color of blood, bright red meaning oxygenated and purplish meaning deoxygenated, and then analyzing the absorption of the light to determine the oxygen level. Now researchers suspect that the inaccurate readings may be a reflection of the light being absorbed by darker skin pigments. These darker skin pigments scatter the light and thus there may be an inaccurate oxygen level reading. 

When the level of blood oxygen is inaccurate there will be inadequate treatments.  Hypoxia is missed so no treatment is given. Big problem! While this issue is being researched and has been identified, I recommend people of color bring this issue up with their healthcare provider, especially if they are having any trouble breathing…..Carol



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