Medical Algorithms Have a Race Problem

Medical Algorithms Have a Race Problem

Editor’s Note: This story was produced by Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit member organization that works to create a fair and just marketplace. Sign up for CR’s free newsletters. When Vanessa Grubbs first met Eli about a decade ago, he was a muscular man in his 50s. Grubbs, a doctor at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, was treating him for membranous nephropathy, a kidney condition that can lead to organ damage and failure. To take his vitals, she’d get out an extra-large blood pressure cuff. Eli is not his real name. Grubbs refers to her patient as Book of Eli because when they first met, he looked like Denzel Washington’s brawny character in the 2010 action movie by that name. But over the next five years, as his condition progressed, Eli slowly lost some of his bulk. Grubbs switched to a regular-sized cuff to take his blood pressure. Eventually, the condition left Eli’s kidneys so damaged that it was time to consider an organ transplant. But kidneys are in short supply: About 23,400 transplants took place last year, and more than 92,000 people are on a national waitlist. To get a spot on the list, a patient must have severely compromised kidneys, which doctors watch for using a number called the glomerular filtration rate, or GFR. The figure indicates how fast a person’s kidneys can filter blood. Only people with a GFR of 20 or below can get in line for a kidney from a deceased donor ...
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