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Monday, November 25, 2019

Racial bias in a medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients

Carolyn Johnson
Scientists discovered racial bias in a widely used medical algorithm that predicts which patients will have complex health needs.  (iStock)The Washington Post
Originally posted October 24, 2019

A widely used algorithm that predicts which patients will benefit from extra medical care dramatically underestimates the health needs of the sickest black patients, amplifying long-standing racial disparities in medicine, researchers have found.

The problem was caught in an algorithm sold by a leading health services company, called Optum, to guide care decision-making for millions of people. But the same issue almost certainly exists in other tools used by other private companies, nonprofit health systems and government agencies to manage the health care of about 200 million people in the United States each year, the scientists reported in the journal Science.

Correcting the bias would more than double the number of black patients flagged as at risk of complicated medical needs within the health system the researchers studied, and they are already working with Optum on a fix. When the company replicated the analysis on a national data set of 3.7 million patients, they found that black patients who were ranked by the algorithm as equally as in need of extra care as white patients were much sicker: They collectively suffered from 48,772 additional chronic diseases.

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