Race and Ethnicity in Pulmonary Function Test Interpretation: An Official American Thoracic Society Statement

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2023 Apr 15;207(8):978-995. doi: 10.1164/rccm.202302-0310ST.


Current American Thoracic Society (ATS) standards promote the use of race and ethnicity-specific reference equations for pulmonary function test (PFT) interpretation. There is rising concern that the use of race and ethnicity in PFT interpretation contributes to a false view of fixed differences between races and may mask the effects of differential exposures. This use of race and ethnicity may contribute to health disparities by norming differences in pulmonary function. In the United States and globally, race serves as a social construct that is based on appearance and reflects social values, structures, and practices. Classification of people into racial and ethnic groups differs geographically and temporally. These considerations challenge the notion that racial and ethnic categories have biological meaning and question the use of race in PFT interpretation. The ATS convened a diverse group of clinicians and investigators for a workshop in 2021 to evaluate the use of race and ethnicity in PFT interpretation. Review of evidence published since then that challenges current practice and continued discussion concluded with a recommendation to replace race and ethnicity-specific equations with race-neutral average reference equations, which must be accompanied with a broader re-evaluation of how PFTs are used to make clinical, employment, and insurance decisions. There was also a call to engage key stakeholders not represented in this workshop and a statement of caution regarding the uncertain effects and potential harms of this change. Other recommendations include continued research and education to understand the impact of the change, to improve the evidence for the use of PFTs in general, and to identify modifiable risk factors for reduced pulmonary function.

Keywords: PFT; ethnicity; interpretation; race.

MeSH terms

  • Ethnicity*
  • Humans
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Societies*
  • United States