BACKGROUND: It is uncertain whether skin pigmentation affects pulse oximeter accuracy at low HbO2 saturation. METHODS: The accuracy of finger pulse oximeters during stable, plateau levels of arterial oxygen saturation (Sao2) between 60 and 100% were evaluated in 11 subjects with darkly pigmented skin and in 10 with light skin pigmentation. Oximeters tested were the Nellcor N-595 with the OxiMax-A probe (Nellcor Inc., Pleasanton, CA), the Novametrix 513 (Novametrix Inc., Wallingford, CT), and the Nonin Onyx (Nonin Inc., Plymouth, MN). Semisupine subjects breathed air-nitrogen-carbon dioxide mixtures through a mouthpiece. A computer used end-tidal oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations determined by mass spectrometry to estimate breath-by-breath Sao2, from which an operator adjusted inspired gas to rapidly achieve 2- to 3-min stable plateaus of desaturation. Comparisons of oxygen saturation measured by pulse oximetry (Spo2) with Sao2 (by Radiometer OSM3) were used in a multivariate model to determine the interrelation between saturation, skin pigmentation, and oximeter bias (Spo2 - Sao2). RESULTS: At 60-70% Sao2, Spo2 (mean of three oximeters) overestimated Sao2 (bias +/- SD) by 3.56 +/- 2.45% (n = 29) in darkly pigmented subjects, compared with 0.37 +/- 3.20% (n = 58) in lightly pigmented subjects (P < 0.0001). The SD of bias was not greater with dark than light skin. The dark-light skin differences at 60-70% Sao2 were 2.35% (Nonin), 3.38% (Novametrix), and 4.30% (Nellcor). Skin pigment-related differences were significant with Nonin below 70% Sao2, with Novametrix below 90%, and with Nellcor at all ranges. Pigment-related bias increased approximately in proportion to desaturation. CONCLUSIONS: The three tested pulse oximeters overestimated arterial oxygen saturation during hypoxia in dark-skinned individuals.
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