Claims of medical racism against Apple have doctors weighing in

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 6:00 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 26, 2023 at 2:39 PM EST
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Apple Watches and similar devices are under more scrutiny after a class action lawsuit claims there is a racial bias built into some of their products.

With the rise of consumer-grade health technology becoming more popular, WFLX spoke to a physician about why some of the information gathered by these wearables may be misleading.

When you live life on the move, some people like to have accessories that can keep up.

For Justin Tagle, it's his Apple Watch.

"I think I got it during COVID in 2020," Tagle said, "just as way because the gyms were closing, so I wanted a way to track my workouts at home."

Local physicians are warning not to rely too heavily on the technology after a study of blood oxygen technology led to a class action lawsuit filed against Apple claiming a racial bias.

"They noticed that those patients who had darker skin tones regardless of race," pulmonologist Dr. Luis Pena-Hernandez said. "I think they looked at Asian populations as well as Hispanic and African Americans where having higher readings on the pulse oximeter."

The blood oxygen tool is an important feature for users like Tagle.

"I spent about a month in Peru," he said, "and I used it to one make sure my meds were working, and two that if I was exerting myself I was taking enough time to let the blood oxygen number go back up."

The issues didn't surprise him, and he said it shines a light on a deeper issue.

"I mean medical racism is a thing, so medical equipment just works better on lighter skin in general from what I've read," Tagle said.

Pena-Hernandez said those who are obese or have tattoos may see similar discrepancies in their blood oxygen readings from pulse oximeters.

Apple devices do warn users that blood oxygen results on their smartwatches are not intended for medical use.

"It's an important disclaimer," Pena-Hernandez said. "This tech is designed to be used as a general reference, not necessarily to be validated for medical use."

While we wait for more research and improvements in tech, Tagle said it's time to have some serious conversations.

"It's unfortunate that racial bias in medicine occurs and for me learning about it made me realize we need to be talking more about it," Tagle said.

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