Disparities in Hypoxemia Detection by Pulse Oximetry Across Self-Identified Racial Groups and Associations With Clinical Outcomes

Nicole R. Henry, Andrew C. Hanson, Phillip J. Schulte, Nafisseh S. Warner, Megan N. Manento, Timothy J. Weister, Matthew A. Warner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECTIVES: To assess disparities in hypoxemia detection by pulse oximetry across self-identified racial groups and associations with clinical outcomes. DESIGN: Observational cohort study from May 5, 2018, to December 31, 2020. SETTING: Three academic medical centers in the United States. PATIENTS: Adults greater than or equal to 18 years who self-identified as White, Black, Asian, or American Indian admitted to the ICU or undergoing surgery during inpatient hospitalization with simultaneous measurements of pulse oximetry-estimated oxygen saturation and arterial blood gas-derived oxygen saturation. INTERVENTIONS: None. MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Multivariable models were employed to assess the relationships between race, occult hypoxemia (i.e., arterial blood gas-derived oxygen saturation < 88% despite pulse oximetry-estimated oxygen saturation ≥ 92%), and clinical outcomes of hospital mortality and hospital-free days. One-hundred twenty-eight–thousand two-hundred eighty-five paired pulse oximetry-estimated oxygen saturation–arterial blood gas-derived oxygen saturation measurements were included from 26,603 patients. Pulse oximetry-estimated oxygen saturation on average overestimated arterial blood gas-derived oxygen saturation by 1.57% (1.54–1.61%). Black, Asian, and American Indian patients were more likely to experience occult hypoxemia during hospitalization (estimated probability 6.2% [5.1–7.6%], 6.6% [4.9–8.8%], and 6.6% [4.4–10.0%], respectively) compared with White patients (3.6% [3.4–3.8%]). Black patients had increased odds of occult hypoxemia compared with White patients after adjustment (odds ratio, 1.65; 1.28–2.14; p < 0.001). Differences in occult hypoxemia between Asian and American Indian patients compared with White patients were not significant after adjustment (odds ratio, 1.53; 0.95–2.47; p = 0.077 and odds ratio, 1.31; 0.80–2.16; p = 0.288, respectively). Occult hypoxemia was associated with increased odds of mortality in surgical (odds ratio, 2.96; 1.20–7.28; p = 0.019) and ICU patients (1.36; 1.03–1.80; p = 0.033). Occult hypoxemia was associated with fewer hospital-free days in surgical (–2.5 d [–3.9 to –1.2 d]; p < 0.001) but not ICU patients (0.4 d [–0.7 to 1.4 d]; p = 0.500). CONCLUSIONS: Occult hypoxemia is more common in Black patients compared with White patients and is associated with increased mortality, suggesting potentially important outcome implications for undetected hypoxemia. It is imperative to validate pulse oximetry with expanded racial inclusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)204-211
Number of pages8
JournalCritical care medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022


  • Disparities
  • Hypoxemia
  • Oxygen
  • Pulse oximetry
  • Race

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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