Doctor warns untreated sleep disorder 'as dangerous as drink driving'

A leading doctor has warned that people with an undiagnosed and untreated sleep condition are as dangerous on the roads as drink drivers.

Dr Paddy Dennison, a consultant in respiratory medicine at University Hospital Southampton, said people with sleep apnoea, a condition which causes difficulty breathing while sleeping, were seven times more likely to cause car accidents due to extreme fatigue.

Speaking about the impact on people’s lives, Dr Dennison said: “Sleep apnoea can be as risky in driving simulations as drinking alcohol. Many people self-impose a driving ban or their GP may advise not to drive until after they’ve undergone a sleep study and received their diagnosis. Whilst very sensible, this can take months, as currently the only option available to us, is for patients to stay overnight in hospital.”

Dr Dennison added: “The number of referrals to UHS for sleep studies has increased by nearly 60% in the last ten years to around 800 each year and we simply don’t have the infrastructure to conduct more patient studies. This means that potentially there’s a large percentage of the population who are undiagnosed and pose a real danger to our roads.

“In addition, a hospital is not your normal sleeping environment so patients tend to have to come back for multiple visits to get an accurate diagnosis, putting further strain on the NHS.”

Home sleep study kits could be the answer. Grant Webber, a patient at UHS, explains:  “The GP referred me for a sleep study, but it was three months before I was even seen for an initial consultation. I didn’t feel comfortable in hospital and struggled to sleep; attached to so many wires, in a bed which was uncomfortable, with lots of noise and light coming through from the ward. They didn’t get much of a reading at all and asked me back to do a second study, but the same thing happened.

“I decided to leave it for six months, but the fatigue was all encompassing and I went back to Dr Dennison. He gave me the option of having a home sleep kit test. I decided to have the test at home and slept so much better in my own bed and it came back with a reading that I had sleep apnoea - I was stopping breathing whilst asleep, nine times every hour.

“I had a reason why I was so tired at last!”

According to the Office of Health Economics for the British Lung Foundation “investing more in awareness, diagnosis and treatment of obstructive sleep apnoea could save the NHS up to £28 million and prevent up to 40,000 road traffic accidents a year.”

With the help of Southampton Hospital Charity, Dr Dennison is currently fundraising for five home sleep study kits to give patients the choice of testing at home, anticipating that around 400 patients each year would prefer this option.

Being treated quicker allows patients to feel better sooner, prevents more serious health problems and reduces deaths on our roads.

To donate to the sleep kits, visit the Southampton Hospital Charity JustGiving page

Find out more about sleep apnoea here

Posted on Friday 13 September 2019