Oximeter Readings Could Be Inaccurate For Patients With Dark Skin Color


Pulse oximeters are undoubtedly one of the most used medical tools this year, courtesy of the coronavirus. The compact and pocketable devices measure blood oxygen levels when clipped on a fingertip, and can swiftly indicate whether a person needs urgent medical attention. Healthcare workers use these devices to note the vital signs of the patients. And, with the pandemic tightening its grip over the world, doctors are recommending patients to use oximeters at home as well.

Oximeter Readings Could Be Inaccurate For Patients With Dark Skin

However, as per a new study, these devices aren't completely accurate when clipped on a person with a dark complexion. The findings have been discouraging for healthcare workers, which rely heavily on these devices to determine whether or not to admit a patient.

The researchers behind the study were stunned by the findings. Though reports on the inaccuracies of these devices have been published earlier, they were never a matter of discussion in medical training.

Pulse oximeters provide readings by shining two wavelengths of red light and an infrared light that passes through the skin of a finger. The device then detects the color of the blood which depends on the amount of oxygen present in it. The blood with good levels of oxygen is bright cherry red, while deoxygenated blood is purplish in color.

Depending on the hue, different amounts of light are absorbed and the oximeter analyzes the absorption and determines the amount of oxygen. The new report suspects that the inaccuracies may be occurring due to the way light is absorbed by darker skin pigments.

Dr. Philip Bickler, Hypoxia research laboratory at University of California, San Francisco, said that in people with darker skin, the pigment "scatters the light around, so the signal is reduced. It's like adding static to your radio signal. You get more noise, less signal."

Besides, different device makers use different sensors that could also cause a disparity in the readings. Also, the ability of these sensors while measuring blood oxygen at rest and during activity could vary. A study suggests that the error rate of these trackers during workouts was 30 percent compared to when the body is at rest. Major firms have claimed to have optimized their sensors to work seamlessly for people with all skin tones by strengthening the green light emission.

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