This Popular Medical Device Was Programmed To Be Racist, And It Hasn’t Been Fixed Yet

xray of lungs
Adé Hennis
March 19, 2024

Many of us have used a spirometer, or at the very least have seen one in a doctor’s office. It’s a small device that we are sometimes asked to blow into to check our lung health. But this harmless doctor’s staple has been used to justify medical racism.

In the U.S. the first spirometers were used in the 18th century, where physicians on slave plantations used it to show that Black people had weaker lungs than white people. The insinuation was that hard physical labor was good for Black bodies and would help build lung strength. Since then, Black physicians have worked hard to refute these lies.

In the early 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois and Kelly Miller both pointed out that the claims of Black lower lung capacity lacked any scientific foundation, and instead were grounded in racial prejudice. However, there’s still a problem.

Because we were assumed to have lower lung capacity, the spirometer was programmed to decrease scores by 10-15% when the user is labeled as Black. That ”race correction” was never taken out. This has left us vulnerable to misdiagnosis, lack of access to effective treatments, and more.

Black Americans are constantly blamed for issues created by institutional racism. The more we understand the role racist social constructs can have on our health, the more strongly we can advocate for ourselves.

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