Can race affect the accuracy of pulse oximetry measurement?

It can! In persons with darkly pigmented skin, pulse oximeters may overestimate arterial oxygen saturation, such that some individuals with oxygen saturation within an acceptable range by pulse oximetry may actually be hypoxemic by arterial blood measurement.1-3

A 2020 study involving 2 large patient populations with oxygen saturations of 92-96% by pulse oximetry, found occult hypoxemia (<88% arterial oxygen saturation) in ~12% of patients who were Black vs ~4% of those who were White. Black individuals were 3 times more likely to have occult hypoxemia than White patients.1

Overestimation of oxygen saturation—particularly at low arterial oxygen saturation— by pulse oximetry in dark-skinned individuals has been previously reported by several studies, although some have not found significant differences at normal saturations, and the degree of discordance may vary among various pulse oximeters.2,3

The reason for the apparent discrepancy between oxygen saturation measured by pulse oximetry vs arterial blood sample in those with dark skin is unclear. Some have suggested “pulse oximeter optical factors” and theorized that provision of correction factors, tables, or even built-in user -optional adjustments may be necessary.2

Given the frequent use of pulse oximetry for medical decision making in Covid-19, these studies should serve as a cautionary note when interpreting oxygen saturation by pulse oximeter in dark-skinned patients with Covid-19.

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that falsely-LOW oxygen saturation has been reported with blue and green nail polish but not red?4

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  1. Sjoding MW, Dickson RP, Valley TS. Racial bias in pulse oximetry measurement. N Engl J Med 2020;383:2477-78.
  2. Bickler PE, Feiner JR, Severinghaus JW. Effects of skin pigmentation on pulse oximeter accuracy at low saturation. Anesthesiology 2005;102:715-9.
  3. Zeballos RJ, Weisman. Reliability of noninvasive oximetry in Black subjects during exercise and hypoxia. Am Rev Resp Dis 1991;144:1240-4.
  4. Cote CJ, Goldstein EA, Fuchsman WH. The effect of nail polish on pulse oximetry. Anesth Analg 1988;75:683-6.


Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis or its affiliate healthcare centers. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

Can race affect the accuracy of pulse oximetry measurement?

When should I consider a switch to oral antibiotics and discharge from hospital in my recently admitted elderly patient with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP)?

A frequently used validated set of clinical stability criteria in patients with CAP and supported by the 2019 ATS/IDSA CAP guidelines consists of a temperature ≤37.8 ᵒC (100.0 ᵒF) AND no more than 1 CAP-related sign of clinical instability as listed below: 1-3

  • Heart rate >100/min
  • Systolic blood pressure <90 mm Hg
  • Respiration rate >24 breaths/min
  • Arterial oxygen saturation <90% or Pa02<60 mm Hg (room air)

Using these criteria, the risk of clinical deterioration serious enough to necessitate transfer to an intensive care unit may be 1% or less, 1 while failure to achieve clinical stability within 5 days is associated with higher mortality and worse clinical outcome. 2 The median time to clinical stability (as defined) for CAP treatment is 3 days.1  

A 2016 randomized-controlled trial involving patients hospitalized with CAP found that implementation of above clinical stability criteria was associated with safe discontinuation of antibiotics after a minimum of 5 days of appropriate therapy.

Potential limitations of the above study include heavy use of quinolones (80%), underrepresentation of patients with severe CAP (Pneumonia Risk Index, PSI, V), and exclusion of nursing home residents, immunosuppressed patients, those with chest tube, or infection caused by less common organisms, such as Staphylococcus aureus or Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Lack of clinical stability after 5 days of CAP treatment should prompt evaluation for complications of pneumonia (eg, empyema, lung abscess), infection due to  organisms resistant to selected antibiotics, or an alternative source of infection/inflammatory/poor response. 2


  1. Halm, EA, Fine MJ, Marrie TJ, et al. Time to clinical stability in patients hospitalized with community-acquired pneumonia: implications for practice guidelines. JAMA 1998;279:279:1452-57.
  2. Metlay JP, Waterer GW, Long AC, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of adults with community-acquired pneumonia. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2019;200:e45-e67.
  3. Uranga A, Espana PP, Bilbao A, et al. Duration of antibiotic treatment in community-acquired pneumonia. A multicenter randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med 2016;176:1257-65.
When should I consider a switch to oral antibiotics and discharge from hospital in my recently admitted elderly patient with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP)?