SUMMARY: There’s no place like home when it comes to convenience, access and obtaining timely health metrics.
More than two years since COVID-19 came into our lives, Americans are still spending more time in their homes. Many of us are Zooming more than ever, Amazon-shopping and exercising in the same dwellings where we sleep, and we won’t consider taking a job that isn’t flexible. Yet a lot of Americans’ health is still being handled outside the home – even when it doesn’t need to be.
One example of this is sleep medicine. An estimated 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems that range from intermittent insomnia to severe sleep apnea. Lack of sleep elevates the risks for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases, while drowsy driving causes an estimated 300,000 motor vehicle accidents each year.
Although many commercial health plans stipulate home sleep apnea tests over in-lab sleep studies (polysomnography), which increases the throughput of diagnostic testing, this does not alleviate the bottle neck of sleep care. We estimate that there is only 1 board-certified sleep specialist for every 20,000 patients with sleep disorders.
Why Home is Where the Heart — and Engagement — is
Today, advanced wearable devices equipped with tiny sensors can help individuals track and detect heart problems, breathing problems and the biometric patterns a person experiences while sleeping.
But the success of consumer wearable technologies like the Apple Watch and other smart devices has less to do with technology and more to do with convenience. With wearable devices, consumers aren’t restricted to a doctor’s office or single snap-shot tests that generate a limited view of the varying physiologic patterns people experience over time.
As such, the interest in sleep tracking devices among mobile professionals such as athletes who travel frequently during their “on” seasons across multiple time zones has grown. Performance matters, and a recent Stanford study of men’s basketball players showed that those who extended their sleep to 10 hours a night ran faster in both half-court and full-court sprints. Their shooting improved by 9% for both free throws and three-point shots.
Transportation professionals are another demographic that would benefit from sleep-tracking devices. They need to be alert—sometimes deep into the night—which can throw off their circadian rhythm (especially if they don’t keep consistent hours). In fact, as one Gartner researcher noted, wearables such as smartwatches or smart rings “can bring significant advantages in the areas of driver performance, driver safety and security and driver health.
Like wearables, virtual care is also more convenient than ever. It has never been easier for patients to log into a telehealth session and engage with physicians or care providers on any device of their choosing—from their homes, at their work desks or from a hotel room.
Convenient and Comprehensive
But there are a few glaring caveats we can’t ignore: Telehealth and wearables need to be affordable and accessible to everyone, especially those who are at higher risk for sleep disorders. Additionally, these options need to be part of a bigger, broader healthcare approach. The use of wearables alone does not treat or sufficiently optimize sleep and overall health.
What’s better? A solution that combines the use of medical-grade wearable sleep trackers to generate biometric data, with remote data analysis by sleep medicine specialists. This approach, when combined with telehealth consultations, enables a more personalized regimen—and improves the odds that individuals can receive recommended treatments that are truly aligned with their unique, individual health challenges.
Veterans, for example, often experience sleep issues that are tied to military traumas and require the assistance of specialized therapists to address sleep within the broader context of these mental health issues. Professional athletes, on the other hand, may require sleep treatments that account for their lifestyles including travel, exercise and nutrition needs.
By employing a comprehensive approach that pairs the ongoing use of advanced, medical-grade smart rings with telehealth consultations, a patient can remain in their home, while receiving more personalized care. This kind of approach sounds expensive, but, in reality, it is linked with significant cost savings. Most Americans with sleep issues remain undiagnosed and lack of sleep costs the U.S. economy more than $400 billion per year. But if we were to prevent economic drains —say, by granting all working Americans with sleep disorders easier access to long term, preventive sleep care —we’d boost productivity, and potentially reduce chronic diseases.
It isn’t just veterans or athletes who will benefit from this kind of convenient, all-inclusive, long-term solution. The vast majority of those suffering with sleep disorders need health solutions that meet them where they’re at — before their health issues escalate. By making it easier and more affordable to access advanced, home-based interventions, we can help millions of Americans get the care (and sleep) that they need.
Patrick Yam and Dr. Melissa Lim are the cofounders of Somnology.