A dental sleep medicine practitioner weighs in on why and how to screen and treat OSA.

Dentists, how many times a year do you see your patients? At least twice, right? And, if you look at other medical professionals, how often do they see their patients? Often only when patients need further care or are exhibiting ailments. While all medical professionals are important and help their patients in different ways, dentists have a unique advantage point for treating patients with sleep apnea.

It is recommended that patients visit their dentists at least twice a year—some might require more visits for various procedures. Because of this, dentists are in a unique position to screen their patients for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Most of the time, those who are suffering from OSA are not aware of their symptoms because they are asleep when they occur. If your patients are unaware of their sleep apnea, you may be able to identify particular physical symptoms firsthand. As a dentist, you play a crucial role in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea.

The Effects of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Despite clear signs and symptoms, many patients with OSA go undiagnosed. In return, patients who finally get diagnosed with OSA might have had obvious symptoms of the disorder for an average of 7 years, during which time patients report visiting their family physician about 17 times and a subspecialist about 9 times. Despite repeated visits, these patients are not receiving the treatment they need to lead healthy, happy lives.

Patients can also experience a number of health conditions associated with untreated OSA, including:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • acid reflux
  • obesity

With these negative effects of untreated OSA, it is vital that we as dentists take charge of our services so we can offer patients the best care possible—and that includes adding specialty practices in the area of dental sleep medicine.

The Burden of Sleep Apnea

Sleep loss and sleep disorders can also play a large role in the economy. When we take a look at the high estimated costs to society if sleep apnea is left untreated, it costs far more than what would be incurred by delivering adequate treatments.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on direct medical costs associated with doctor visits, hospital services, prescriptions, and over-the-counter drugs. When compared to healthy individuals, those who suffer from sleep loss and sleep disorders are less productive. These individuals also experience an increased healthcare utilization and an increased likelihood of accidents.

Mayoor Patel, DDS, MS

Mayoor Patel, DDS, MS

Work with the Medical Community

OSA is a medical condition, which means it is important to include a medical professional in the treatment process. While dentists can treat OSA, we cannot diagnose it ourselves. What we can do is ask questions and pay attention to symptoms. Beyond that, we need a sleep physician to help us in the diagnosis process through a sleep study. Through a working relationship with a sleep physician, you can send patients for diagnosis while also receiving patients for treatment with oral appliance therapy if they become CPAP intolerant.

At the end of the day, there is an easier solution: You, the dentist. By completing continuing education to advance your services to include sleep apnea care, you can save patients time and money spent on figuring out what might be the problem. Most patients are treated with oral appliance therapy for sleep apnea due to its convenience and ease of use. As a dentist, you can offer your patients oral appliances to ensure accuracy and provide the best results.

Take charge of your practice and help your patients get a better night’s sleep while also improving their overall health and well-being by screening for sleep apnea. At the end of the day, if you’re not saving your patient’s life through sleep apnea screening, then who is?

Mayoor Patel, DDS, MS, is the owner of Atlanta’s Craniofacial Pain and Dental Sleep Center of Georgia.