Thursday 24 December 2020

That pulse oximeter scandal

A pulse oximeter on a finger above an apple watch on a wrist.
Something has been bugging me since I first saw the story that Pulse Oximeter Devices Have Higher Error Rate in Black Patients other than the very obvious racism.

Say you have decided that the way in which white people decide they are the default and don't bother to do any work to see how the technology they sell affects people with different skin colours is a lesser evil than actively joining the clan.

Say you also accept that not a single one of the companies that makes pulse oximeters managed to see a copy of Effects of Skin Pigmentation on Pulse Oximeter Accuracy at Low Saturation (April 2005) or similar.

In order to forgive oversite in this matter you also have to believe that collectively the companies manufacturing these devices  and/or integrating them into more complex products have at no point seen any coverage of the controversy around Apple Watches on dark skin, which to be frank was everywhere five years ago.

I don't know about you, but as someone working in the technology product space, my first reaction whenever there is a story about a product failing in a similar space to mine is to go and ask the specialists "are we vulnerable to the same problem" because (and shamefully so) in terms of reputation damage, worse than being called out for racism, worse than being in the papers/Private Eye/The Register for your product being broken, is being the company whose product is still broken in a way that everyone noticed five years ago and fixed. After all while learning from your mistakes is very important, learning from other people's mistakes is better.

So either there are loads of product types in medical technology that are failing people because they don't engage with the wider technology space, or they spotted this and decided to keep their head down to avoid costs, or worst of all pulled on white hoods and decided that non-pale-skinned people weren't worth R&D time.

As I said at the beginning, there are those that are happy to dismiss accidental racism as acceptable and I'd be lying if I said I was confident I'd never done it myself, but in this case people are actively not doing their job.

P.S. If I have failed to spot someone more appropriate to make this point posting on it, please get in touch and let me know and I'll promote their writing instead.


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