Study Shows Racial Bias May Cause Underdiagnosis for Blacks With Lung Issues

Study Shows Racial Bias May Cause Underdiagnosis for Blacks With Lung Issues

Black people continue to experience bias in the medical field.

A new study suggests that patients who received a common test for lung function may have experienced racial bias leading to improper care, Associated Press reports. Close to 40% more black male patients who participated in the study could have been diagnosed with breathing problems if the current diagnosis-assisting computer software was changed.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, is one of the first real-world examples to show how the issue affects diagnosis and care for lung patients. Doctors have been discussing race-based assumptions that can cause problems for some time; Darshali Vyas, a pulmonary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the results as “what we’d expect,” unfortunately.

For years, medical professionals have held the belief that the lungs of black people are generally worse than those of white people. That belief was worked into guidelines and algorithms to assess risk and protocol for future care, leading to test results being adjusted to correct for a patient’s race or ethnicity. The new study had over 2,700 black men and 5,700 white men tested by University of Pennsylvania Health System doctors between 2010 and 2020. Researchers looked at spirometry and lung volume measurements to see how many may have breathing issues under the bias race-based algorithm as compared to a new algorithm.

Final results found close to 400 more cases of lung obstruction in black men with the new one.

The American Thoracic Society, which represents lung care doctors, issued a statement recommending the replacement of race-focused adjustments, according to U.S. News & World Report. However, the organization also wanted to conduct more research, including looking into the best way to modify the software and how making the change could swing from underdiagnosing to overdiagnosing patients. Dr. Vyas says changing the algorithm process could take a while, since certain hospitals use different versions of race-adjusting procedures and software.