Study: Widely used health care algorithm has racial bias

Significant racial bias has been found in an algorithm that helps hospital networks determine which patients may need further care, with whites favored over blacks, a new study found.

In an algorithm from the health services company Optum, health costs were used to predict and rank which patients would benefit most from extra care that could help them stay on their medications or keep them out of the hospital. But researchers said that using health costs as a proxy for health needs is biased because black patients, facing disproportionate levels of poverty, often spend less on health care than whites. Because of this bias, the algorithm falsely concluded that blacks were healthier than equally sick white patients.

“We already know that the health care system disproportionately mismanages and mistreats black patients and other people of color,” said Ashish Jha, K.T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who was not involved in the study, in a November 6, 2019 NBC News article. “If you build those biases into the algorithms and don’t deal with it, you’re going to make those biases more pervasive and more systematic and people won’t even know where they are coming from.”

He added, “People need to understand this for what it is, which is systemic bias we need to root out.”

Read the NBC News article: Racial bias found in widely used health care algorithm