Racial assumptions in medical testing software skews results

On Behalf of | Jun 13, 2023 | Medical malpractice |

You may think that medical tests would produce accurate, scientifically measurable results. Patients in North Dakota, however, sometimes fail to get care that they need because algorithms in some medical testing software adjust results according to dubious racial characteristics. Doctors reading the results see software-generated conclusions based on historically inaccurate views about physical differences among racial groups.

Lung function

Doctors in the past believed that black people had poor lung function compared to white people. This historical prejudice remains influential today because algorithms that evaluate lung function as recorded by a spirometer device use this erroneous assumption.

The device measures how much air you can move through your lungs in each breath. Software within a spirometer scores the results of the patients who breath in and out of the device’s mouthpiece. It can detect problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or lung damage from pollution exposure.

A doctor relying on the spirometer results could misdiagnose a black patient or fail to recommend additional care. At times, such a decision may amount to medical negligence. Researchers looking at lung function testing of black people determined that the spirometer was potentially steering hundreds of people away from necessary care. Due to this problem, the American Thoracic Society supports a redesign of the algorithm to reflect reality.

Heart and kidney functions

Racial biases also lurk in systems meant to score your risk for heart disease or kidney function. Black patients may miss out on cardiac care because the medical system considers their race less prone to heart failure. As for kidney function evaluations, medical assumptions attribute higher kidney function to black people.

Careful diagnostic practices

Doctors can gain valuable insights from medical tests when the software running the machines does rely on unproven assumptions. Ideally, a diagnosis emerges from a doctor’s thorough consideration of all variables, including your symptoms, X-rays and other lab tests.