An algorithm sold by Optum that helps guide decisionmaking for more than 100 million people in hospitals across the U.S. has been found to carry a racial bias. Hospitals use the tool to identify how to treat patients with chronic ailments.
But research published last week in Science found the algorithm dramatically underestimates the health needs of the sickest black patients and gave healthier white patients the same ranking as black patients who had poorer lab results. Hospitals would use the tool to identify patients who needed additional care and assign staffers to manage the care of those patients more comprehensively.
Researchers found the algorithm specifically excluded race. In order to flag which patients would benefit most from more medical support, the algorithm used how much hospitals and health systems would spend on patients.
It found that yearly care for black patients with chronic conditions cost about $1,800 less than that for comparable white patients. That cost is likely lower because black patients generally use healthcare services at lower rates than white ones. So the algorithm scored white patients as being at the same risk of future health problems as black patients with many more chronic conditions.
Researchers are working to fix the problem; that’s expected to more than double the number of black patients flagged as at-risk.