California investigating racial bias in healthcare algorithms

Rob Bonta speaks into a microphone.
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta speaks at a news conference earlier this summer.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The California attorney general is investigating racial bias in healthcare algorithms that can be used to help determine patient care.

Top prosecutor Rob Bonta announced the state Department of Justice probe Wednesday, citing a study that found one algorithm referred white patients to get enhanced services at a higher rate than their Black counterparts with similar needs.

“We’re launching an inquiry into healthcare algorithms and asking hospitals across the state to share information about how they work to address racial and ethnic disparities when using software products to help make decisions about patient care or hospital administration,” Bonta said in a statement.


The Department of Justice sent out a letter to hospital CEOs across the state requesting lists of all “software systems or algorithmic methodologies” used to make risk predictions or diagnoses.

The letter also asked hospitals to include systems that help schedule operating room times as well as payment plans and billing issues.

While healthcare algorithms vary from complicated networks to simple programs, they are a fast-growing part of the medical industry and are used to make key determinations about patient care, the attorney general said.

“The use of healthcare algorithms can help streamline processes and improve patient outcomes, but without appropriate review, training, and guidelines for usage, algorithms can have unintended negative consequences, especially for vulnerable patient groups,” the Department of Justice said in a release.