Sen. Warren Questions Use of Race-Based Algorithms in Standard Medical Practice

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The following is a media release from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office. She was elected by voters in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to serve the state in Washington DC in the US Senate. She is a Democrat.

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WASHINGTON DC – United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), sent a letter to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) requesting a review of the use of race-based clinical algorithms in standard medical practices. 

“The ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and its disproportionate consequences for communities of color have starkly revealed that racism itself is a public health crisis,” the lawmakers wrote. “In order to reduce health disparities among communities of color, we must ensure that medicine and public health organizations take a staunchly anti-racist approach to medical care and reevaluate the ways in which current practices, including the use of race-based algorithms, could be worsening outcomes for people of color.”

Race-based clinical algorithms inform how clinicians adjust medical test results based on their patient’s race and predict health care needs, treatment regimens and overall assessments of health These algorithms risk embedding racism into medical practice when, for example, the National Football League’s concussion protocols assumed that Black NFL players have lower cognitive functioning compared to white players.

Across the U.S., some practitioners are challenging the use of race in these algorithms.

Several hospital systems, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, have removed the inclusion of race from some clinical algorithms-citing findings that suggest that these algorithms may be worsening both health outcomes and the ability of former employees sustaining injuries on the job to qualify for fair compensation because of their race.

In order to better understand these algorithms and their current effects on medical care, the lawmakers requested a review of their use by AHRQ. 

In the letter, the lawmakers asked AHRQ a series of questions about the steps the agency is  taking to address any disparities stemming from race-based assumptions embedded into medical care through these algorithms including, the extent to which race-based clinical algorithms are used in medical practice, whether race-based algorithms are based on scientifically sound, sufficiently powered studies, how these algorithms currently affect patients, and what approaches different hospital and medical systems have taken in removing race from these algorithms.

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