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Challenging Racial Bias in Health Technologies: The Imperative for Inclusive Design and Testing

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Anthony Raphael
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Challenging Racial Bias in Health Technologies: The Imperative for Inclusive Design and Testing

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The Issue of Racial Bias in Health Technologies

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A recent study, aiming to spotlight the issue of racial bias in the creation and testing of health technologies, emphasized that failures to understand and integrate race into the development process could exacerbate existing racial health disparities. The research specifically pointed out photoplethysmographic (PPG) sensors, widely used in wearable devices like Fitbits and Apple watches, as a technology that is not as accurate for people with darker skin tones.

The study, which underlines the need for a more equitable approach to health technology development, also brings up the concept of 'race correction'. This refers to the assumption that technologies can 'remove' the effect of biological race. However, the researchers argue that this approach is a short-sighted solution as it fails to address the root cause - the system of racism itself - and may even introduce new problems.

The Exclusion of People with Darker Skin Tones in Technology Testing

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There is a significant lack of representation of dark skin tones in the testing of PPG sensors and health technologies in general. This exclusion extends to even nursing education, with textbooks often lacking diversity in their representation. The lack of diversity in research populations and testing scenarios leads to a subsequent lack of understanding and potentially harmful inaccuracies in health technologies, further perpetuating healthcare disparities.

Racial Bias Beyond Health Technologies

While racial bias in health technologies is an urgent issue, it is just one facet of the wider problem. Racial bias seeps into all aspects of healthcare, from AI to patient-doctor interactions. For instance, a KFF survey revealed that patients of color, particularly Black patients, often feel the need to dress well and prepare for potential insults to receive fair treatment from health providers. This anticipation of unequal treatment can significantly impact patients' interactions with their doctors.

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Implicit Racial Bias and Its Effects

The effects of racial bias also extend beyond the immediate healthcare setting. Discrimination experienced in daily life, including receiving poorer service at stores and restaurants, being threatened or harassed, or being criticized for speaking a language other than English, impacts people's overall mental health, leading to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

The Need for Inclusive Design and Testing

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Addressing racial bias in health technologies and healthcare at large requires a multi-faceted approach. This includes championing diversity in research populations, using advanced methods to reduce healthcare disparities, and insisting on ethical software development, such as the 'Code Zero Bias Oath' for software engineers. Furthermore, it is crucial to address the systemic racism that forms the backdrop of these issues.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is imperative to challenge and correct racial bias within health technologies and healthcare. A more responsible and equitable approach to the development and testing of health technologies is needed, focusing on addressing racism as a system rather than adjusting based on race as a biological construct. Only then can we hope to create a healthcare system that serves everyone equally, regardless of the color of their skin.

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