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How Algorithms Lead to Health Care Discrimination

Last updated February 13, 2024

New research shows that Black patients are less likely to receive kidney transplants than white patients. Why? Because doctors are less likely to offer them the option.

Black patients are 54% less likely to receive a transplant.

Racial disparities start at the very beginning of the process and follow Black patients throughout their transplant journeys.

Black patients are 23% less likely to be referred for transplant.

Black patients are 19% less likely to join the transplant waiting list.

Algorithms Block Life-Saving Care

An article from Wired delves into the disparities even further.

Black patients tend to be more at-risk for chronic health conditions, but they typically receive lower-quality care than white patients. One reason for life-threatening care disparities: race-inclusive algorithms.

A recent study found that when analyzing patients who had identical health care statistics aside from their race, a health care algorithm designated white patients as having a more severe category of kidney disease than Black patients.

In dozens of cases, the lower scores assigned to Black patients meant that they were not evaluated to potentially join the kidney transplant waiting list.

“Doctors did not question the race-based recommendations.”

Factors like poverty can further complicate access and lead to unbalanced medical care recommendations from algorithms.

Disparities stretch beyond transplant evaluations into catastrophic injury and beyond. In August 2020, retired football players sued the NFL for allegedly using a brain injury algorithm that assigned higher base cognitive function to white patients.

“Any degradation of treatment for these already marginalized groups could have profound results.”

What will it take to change the system? Change will likely begin with medical societies re-evaluating their guidelines, a process that will trickle down to individual medical providers and institutions.

Written by Emily Progin