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Study: Healthcare software algorithms inadvertently infuse racism into care

An investigation by health news website STAT News found that a common method of using analytics software to target medical services to patients is infusing racial bias into decision-making about who should receive stepped-up care (Source: “From a small town in North Carolina to big-city hospitals, how software infuses racism into U.S. health care,” STAT News, Oct. 13).

While a study published last year documented bias in the use of an algorithm in one health system, STAT found the problems arise from multiple algorithms used in hospitals across the country. The bias is not intentional, but it reinforces deeply rooted inequities in the American health care system, effectively walling off low-income Black and Hispanic patients from services that less sick white patients routinely receive.

These algorithms are running in the background of most Americans’ interaction with the health care system. They sift data on patients’ medical problems, prior health costs, medication use, lab results and other information to predict how much their care will cost in the future and inform decisions such as whether they should get extra doctor visits or other support to manage their illnesses at home. The trouble is, these data reflect long-standing racial disparities in access to care, insurance coverage, and use of services, leading the algorithms to systematically overlook the needs of people of color in ways that insurers and providers may fail to recognize.