Pulse oximeters, which measure a person’s blood oxygen level, were being touted as a tool to help people with COVID-19 determine if they needed to go to the hospital.
But the devices can overestimate oxygen levels on people with darker skin, Bervell read in a study. In other words, the device is more likely to tell a Black person their levels are normal when they’re actually low and need medical care.
“I was already thinking a lot about racial issues and how they related to medicine,” Bervell, a medical student researching orthopedics at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland said
So he decided to share what he learned on TikTok because it had real implications for Black people with COVID-19.
“It ended up going viral, getting over a half million views. It had hundreds of thousands of comments from people saying either, as a physician, they didn’t know about it, or as patients saying,
‘I actually noticed this on myself,’” Bervell recalls. “From there, I started looking into other ways that medicine unfortunately overlooks communities of color.”
Since then, Bervell has shared numerous TikToks exploring racial disparities in medicine. While he gets ideas from medical school, sometimes people suggest topics for him to address.
He approaches each subject as if he were sharing a story with his family.
“By posting these videos and having this impact, I’m helping people that are like my family.
They may look like me, but they may not have access to physicians who can talk them through this,” he says. “I feel very humbled to have this position and have a platform.”
One of the things that he finds most surprising after examining racism in medicine for three years is how it’s built into medicine.