"You can have any color you want, as long as it is black." - Henry Ford
My earlier posts paint an uncertain picture about the future of sleep medicine as it relates to the diagnosis and treatment of obstructive sleep apnea. That said, I see that there are a number of inescapable realities. I have listed them below and included my thoughts about them. How the sleep medicine community chooses to deal with these realities and possibly others will likely dictate the future of sleep medicine.
Reality #1 - Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a chronic condition, is far more prevalent than originally imagined and is likely to become even more common due to the rising incidence of obesity and aging of the population. To call it an epidemic is no longer hyperbole.
The number of people suffering with sleep apnea varies depending on who you ask. But whatever number you believe, it is a very large getting larger. And if you include children the figure are staggering. Something needs to be done to address the 80% who remain undiagnosed and the 50% who are nonadherence due to ineffective treatment.
Reality #2 - The consequences of untreated OSA are more than just reduced quality of life and excessive daytime sleepiness. The effects of OSA impact most, if not all, organ systems in the body.
Current medical research is showing connections between sleep apnea and other diseases, such as some forms of Cancer, Alzheimer's and ADHD in children. These comorbid conditions arise in part from the chronic intermittent hypoxia that occurs during the apneic events. The connection with hypertension and other cardiovascular disease is solid and that alone warrants finding ways to prevent sleep apnea if possible or to treat it effectively to mitigate further injury.
Reality #3 - There is more technology available to diagnose and treat OSA and will continue to increase in variety/sophistication in the coming years, including at some point a pharmaceutical intervention.
Diagnostic technology for “out of center testing” continues to improve and while it is unlikely to ever replace in-lab polysomnography insurance companies are now requiring a home test first to determine a diagnosis of OSA. Positive Airway Pressure therapy machines look less and less like medical devices and wireless communication contained in them is facilitating greater ease in monitoring adherence to therapy. Oral Appliance Therapy for mild to moderate OSA has evolved as well making it an acceptable first line treatment. Greater precision for surgical options is improving the rate of success. Other therapies are in development as well to address the broad range of disease that present.
Reality #4 - The number of Board Certified Sleep Medicine Physicians is not increasing at rate to keep pace with the increasing number of people who need care.
The problem of a narrowing pipeline of physicians is also a problem in other specialities as well, including primary care. The need for appropriately trained allied health professionals, such as those Credential in Clinical Sleep Health to work with primary care and with sleep medicine specialists is great. These physician extenders are the key to getting the undiagnosed into treatment, and to insuring they are adherent. Dentists also have a role to play in screening patients for OSA and with appropriate training treating that portion that will respond to OAT.
Reality #5 - Deductibles and co-pays for health insurance coverage will be set at such a point now that many of the expenses associated with diagnosing and treating OSA will be out-of-pocket or using a health savings account.
There are a number of changes in how healthcare is delivered in the United States, among them is the financial participation required by the consumer. Affordability of diagnosis and treatment will play a role how, particularly those in safety sensitive positions like transportation, chose to proceed.
The future holds great possibilities for the field of sleep medicine, but success is contingent on a willingness to adjust to a changing landscape and to accept that there is plenty of work to go around. It is fair to say that the last sleep apnea patient is not walking through the door and that black is not the only color available.