Low Perfusion and Missed Diagnosis of Hypoxemia by Pulse Oximetry in Darkly Pigmented Skin: A Prospective Study

Anesth Analg. 2024 Mar 1;138(3):552-561. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000006755. Epub 2023 Dec 18.


Background: Retrospective clinical trials of pulse oximeter accuracy report more frequent missed diagnoses of hypoxemia in hospitalized Black patients than White patients, differences that may contribute to racial disparities in health and health care. Retrospective studies have limitations including mistiming of blood samples and oximeter readings, inconsistent use of functional versus fractional saturation, and self-reported race used as a surrogate for skin color. Our objective was to prospectively measure the contributions of skin pigmentation, perfusion index (PI), sex, and age on pulse oximeter errors in a laboratory setting.

Methods: We enrolled 146 healthy subjects, including 25 with light skin (Fitzpatrick class I and II), 78 with medium (class III and IV), and 43 with dark (class V and VI) skin. We studied 2 pulse oximeters (Nellcor N-595 and Masimo Radical 7) in prevalent clinical use. We analyzed 9763 matched pulse oximeter readings (pulse oximeter measured functional saturation [Sp o2 ]) and arterial oxygen saturation (hemoximetry arterial functional oxygen saturation [Sa o2 ]) during stable hypoxemia (Sa o2 68%-100%). PI was measured as percent infrared light modulation by the pulse detected by the pulse oximeter probe, with low perfusion categorized as PI < 1%. The primary analysis was to assess the relationship between pulse oximeter bias (difference between Sa o2 and Sp o2 ) by skin pigment category in a multivariable mixed-effects model incorporating repeated-measures and different levels of Sa o2 and perfusion.

Results: Skin pigment, PI, and degree of hypoxemia significantly contributed to errors (bias) in both pulse oximeters. For PI values of 1.0% to 1.5%, 0.5% to 1.0%, and <0.5%, the P value of the relationship to mean bias or median absolute bias was <.00001. In lightly pigmented subjects, only PI was associated with positive bias, whereas in medium and dark subjects bias increased with both low perfusion and degree of hypoxemia. Sex and age was not related to pulse oximeter bias. The combined frequency of missed diagnosis of hypoxemia (pulse oximeter readings 92%-96% when arterial oxygen saturation was <88%) in low perfusion conditions was 1.1% for light, 8.2% for medium, and 21.1% for dark skin.

Conclusions: Low peripheral perfusion combined with darker skin pigmentation leads to clinically significant high-reading pulse oximeter errors and missed diagnoses of hypoxemia. Darkly pigmented skin and low perfusion states are likely the cause of racial differences in pulse oximeter performance in retrospective studies.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / diagnosis
  • Missed Diagnosis*
  • Oximetry*
  • Oxygen
  • Perfusion
  • Prospective Studies
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Oxygen