Health Secretary Sajid Javid receives his Covid-19 booster jab (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
21 November 2021

‘Systemic racial bias’ likely in health services around the world – Javid

21 November 2021

The Health Secretary has said there may be a “systemic racial bias” in health services around the world.

Sajid Javid’s comments come after he announced a review into possible racial and gender bias in medical devices, and said that health disparities had been highlighted by Covid-19.

He added that non-white people could trust the NHS with their health, but said it was important to see what more could be done to help them.

Mr Javid told Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News: “If you were from a BME background, a third of admissions were from (a) BME background in ICU units at the height of the crisis, and that’s more than double the representation of the population.”

He said one issue was with a medical device called an oximeter – used to measure blood oxygen levels through the skin – which he said “in many cases, it was giving false readings” because of darker skin tones.

But we should always be looking to see what can be done to improve things and this particular issue about racial bias in medical instruments, it’s global.

He said: “There are research papers already on this and no-one did anything about it.

“Now, I’m not saying this was deliberate by anyone, I think it’s just, it’s a systemic issue potentially, with medical devices, and it may go even further than that with medical textbooks, for example.”

Asked if he thought non-white people could trust the health service, he replied: “I think we can trust the NHS.

“But I think… of course we can, and the NHS has been there for all of us for decades now, and helped every community in Britain, and that’s, of course, something that is right.

“But we should always be looking to see what can be done to improve things and this particular issue about racial bias in medical instruments, it’s global.”

Mr Javid’s independent review will look into why people from BME backgrounds often have worse health outcomes than others.

Writing in the Sunday Times, he cited research on pulse oximeters which has suggested that they are less accurate in darker-skinned patients.

He said: “One of the founding principles of our NHS is equality, and the possibility that a bias, even an inadvertent one, could lead to a poorer health outcome is totally unacceptable.”

The review, which will see UK authorities working alongside the United States, will look at introducing a new international standard to make sure medical devices have been tested on people of different races before widespread use.

The Health Secretary also said the review will also look at “other important biases such as gender bias”, in considering such things as ensuring “lifesaving technologies such as MRI scanners can be made accessible to pregnant or breastfeeding women”.

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