Sajid Javid has launched a review into claims medical devices used to treat Covid are racially biased – and admitted years of failure.
The Health Secretary today declared “there may be, in health services across the world, a systemic racial bias” in crucial equipment.
That includes research suggesting pulse oximeters – used to measure blood oxygen levels – are less accurate in darker skinned patients.
He said "there were research papers already on this and nobody did anything about it" – adding it may have led to deaths of people from Covid.
It comes after the Covid pandemic had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups.
Mr Javid said at the height of the second Covid peak, ethnic minority groups made up 28% of admissions to critical care in England – “about double their representation in the population as a whole”.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine last year suggested there was “racial bias” in the measurements by pulse oximeters.
Pulse oximeters use light to measure oxygen saturation in the blood
Pulse oximeters work by putting a probe onto the patient’s finger and measuring how the light flow is altered by tiny blood vessels.
The study compared patients for whom the process overestimated the saturation of oxygen in the blood to a certain threshold.
It suggested the results were inaccurate by more than certain threshold for 11.4% of Black patients and 3.6% of white patients.
A source close to Mr Javid told the Sunday Times: “One of the reasons why ethnic minorities have been hit harder by Covid is that the equipment that is used is designed by white people.
“It is designed for white skin and if you have black skin it doesn't work, so it misreads.
"The darker your skin, the worse the misreading, so as a result there were a lot of people who should have ended up in hospital on ventilators and didn't and they died."
Mr Javid said it is "totally unacceptable" that even an inadvertent bias could lead to a poorer health outcome for some people.
He said he is "determined to take a fresh perspective" to his role within Government and "do whatever it takes" to fix disparities,
Writing in The Sunday Times, he said: "I want to make sure that the benefits of the incredible advances in technology and treatments we've seen in recent years are widely shared, so they help not hinder this work.
"It is easy to look at a machine and assume that everyone's getting the same experience. But technologies are created and developed by people, and so bias, however inadvertent, can be an issue here too.
"So questions like who is writing the code, how a product is tested and who is sitting round the boardroom table are critical – especially when it comes to our health."
The Cabinet minister, who said he "watched with horror" the testimony of cricketers last week who had been victims of racism in the game, spoke of his own experience growing up.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “I was called ‘P***’ almost every day at school.
“I didn’t like it then – I don’t like it now.
"I think the good news is our country has come a long, long way since then, but clearly not every institution in the country has taken that journey.
"And it's clear to everyone now that Yorkshire County Cricket Club is one of those institutions that have been stuck in the dark ages and needs to change."
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Mr Javid said the independent review he has started 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".
He said: "One of the greatest gifts that you can give anyone is the gift of good health.
"I'll make it my mission to close the chasms that the pandemic has exposed, to make us not just a healthier country, but a fairer one too."