The Anatomy of Inequity

The national algorithm for kidney-recipient eligibility obstructs Black Americans from receiving treatment by continuing to include a deadly race factor.

Chidubem Nwosu

In eight grade, after watching six seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, I practically worshipped doctors. I mean, they bring people back from the brink of death, they discover unknown diseases… golly, what I would have given to be in the care of Dr. George O’ Malley. Fast forward two years later, I have not only come to accept the fact that doctors don’t just stand around all day looking good, but also that the reality that many hospital patients are treated—depending on their race—nothing like what’s shown on a glamorized TV show. 

One concerning practice that has been gathering attention over the years, yet little action, is the application process for kidney transplants. In order to be considered as a potential kidney recipient, hospitals must send the National Kidney Foundation their patient’s glomerular filtration rate (GFR), a urine-based mathematical algorithm developed in the 1960s. In 1990, in order to account for muscle mass, two race factors were incorporated into the GFR algorithm—one for Black people and another for non-Black people, under the incorrect assumption that Black people have more muscle mass. Yet in this day and age, because scientific research disproves any kind of correlation between muscle mass and ethnicity, many people view this addition of race coefficients into the GFR algorithm as a channel for racism.

[Out] of 57,000 kidney patients in Boston, one-third of Black patients would have been placed in critical care if their kidneys had been evaluated with the same algorithm used for non-Black patients.

The use of a race coefficient in the GFR’s algorithm boosts Black kidney patients’ GFR scores by an additional 15.9 percent, causing them to appear much healthier than patients of other racialized groups—even when they’re not. The effects of this, as illustrated by Paul Eggers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, show that although Black people constitute over 35% of all kidney failure patients and are four times more likely to develop kidney disease than white patients, they are still four times less likely to receive a kidney transplant, even when all age, blood type, immunological, muscle mass, and locational factors are excluded. In fact, last year, Tom Simonite of Wired magazine reported that out of 57,000 kidney patients in Boston, one-third of Black patients would have been placed in critical care if their kidneys had been evaluated with the same algorithm used for non-Black patients.

The absence of any change in establishing equality in the GFR algorithm has also led to a similar trend in the way healthcare workers respond to the needs of Black kidney patients. In 2017, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that “40 percent of the quality measures were still worse for Blacks than whites.” The stereotype that the kidney algorithm is based on further encourages an ongoing bias, one that causes doctors to be less attentive towards Black patients as a whole because they’re viewed as “healthier” or “hardier.” Healthcare workers are less likely to notice pain or discomfort on the faces of Black patients than on those of others, and even if they do, they are less likely to respond to it.

The University of Washington was one of the first to address this controversy in the medical field by asking, “Why would there be a correction factor for a healthier value for the group at greatest risk of kidney disease?” And the answer is simple: there shouldn’t be. The plain truth is that the national kidney algorithm has led to detrimental effects in the health of Black patients by causing them to wait considerably longer for treatments; not to mention, it has cultivated neglectful habits in the care of Black patients by healthcare workers. People could be saved, lives lengthened. So, what exactly are we waiting for? It’s time to remove the race factor.