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This device is crucial in the fight against Covid. It may not work on dark skin

February 20, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 23.9%. 2 min read.

FILE PHOTO: A pulse oximeter is attached to a patient's finger to monitor oxygen intake within the body, at EHA Clinics in Abuja, Nigeria January 14, 2021. Picture taken January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo

Pulse oximeters, small devices that monitor oxygen levels, may not work well for people with dark skin, according to multiple studies and government health agencies.

"While pulse oximeters may be useful for estimating blood oxygen levels, these devices have limitations that can result in inaccurate readings," Dr. William Maisel, director of the Office of Product Evaluation and Quality in the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement.

Pulse oximeters are small clamp-like devices that attach painlessly to a patient's finger and constantly monitor the amount of oxygen in their blood.

For each patient, they compared the oxygen levels recorded by a pulse oximeter to those measured by arterial blood gas -- a much more accurate, but painful and invasive, procedure.

The takeaway, Dr. Sjoding says, is that pulse oximeters were three times as likely to miss significantly low oxygen levels -- or hypoxemia -- in Black patients.

Experienced physicians don't rely on the pulse oximeter alone to make a diagnosis or decide a patient's treatment, says Dr. Michelle Ng Gong, chief of Critical Care Medicine and the chief of Pulmonary Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

But, Dr. Gong says, during the pandemic, when hospitals are overwhelmed, and doctors who may not normally be in the emergency room are being brought in to see and triage patients, numbers from a pulse oximeter may hold more weight.

If a patient says they are having trouble breathing, physicians shouldn't dismiss them just because a pulse oximeter reading is normal.

Moran-Thomas uncovered studies going back to the 1990s that suggested there was a problem with pulse oximeters in darker-skinned patients.

In 2005, a study done at the University of California, San Francisco's Hypoxia Lab, found that three different models of pulse oximeters overestimated oxygen levels in dark-skinned patients.

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