Sleep lab to improve Black Belt health

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

New programs at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital often allow its patients to sleep a little easier at night. In the case of its newest one, literally.

In either late April or early May, the hospital will be opening a new on-site sleep laboratory that will enable patients to receive both an accurate diagnosis of a potential sleep disorder and the most advanced treatments available. Serving as Medical Director for the lab will be Dr. James Geyer of Tuscaloosa, Director of Sleep Medicine and Epilepsy at the Alabama Neurologic Institute in Birmingham and long recognized as one of the leading voices in the field of sleep medicine.

“This is a service that is long overdue for this area,” Geyer said in an interview Friday. “The goal is to get apnea and other sleep disorders recognized and treated as the threats they are. Sleep disorders are a tremendously under-recognized problem.”

According to Geyer, the author of several textbooks on the subject, there is a remarkably strong link between sleep disorders and other health problems.

“There is a tremendous correlation between sleep disorders and health,” he said. “A recent sleep and heart health study showed that 70 to 80 percent of stroke victims, and up to 50 percent of heart attack victims, suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Studies have shown that if you treat the apnea, you can improve the patient’s high blood pressure…in many cases where the blood pressure isn’t controlled, treating the apnea means that the pressure then becomes controllable.”

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of people suffering from sleep disorders are not aware they even have a medical problem, and even less seek and receive help.

“One study showed that less than 2 percent of those suffering from a disorder are being treated,” Geyer said. “The vast majority are unaware that they need treatment.”

Thanks to the sleep lab, many more area patients will be able to know for certain if they do need treatment or not. Geyer said that patients sent to the lab will undergo a straightforward exam and have their medical history documented to “narrow the causes of daytime sleepiness.”

If that cause is “not easily diagnosed,” the patient will move on to an “overnight sleep study” in which the patient’s breathing and other activities during sleep are carefully monitored. That study will hopefully lead to a diagnosis, which according to Geyer could range from the common OSA to the well-known disorder narcolepsy to “periodic limb movement disorder,” in which a sufferer’s arm or leg twitches during sleep, preventing sufficient rest.

From there the patient will being treatment, which in most apnea cases will mean using a CPAP machine.

“The CPAP is a system where a mask or nasal prongs are used to provide room air at high pressure to keep passages open, so breathing is normalized,” Geyer said. “Once breathing is normalized, the patient can rest normally.”

Other apnea cases could require surgery, and in the case of some disorders, like narcolepsy, medication is needed. Having diagnoses and treatments available at Whitfield Memorial will be a huge plus for the hospital, Geyer said.

“They’ll now be able to take care of these patients without having to refer them out,” he said. “This will also improve the quality of care for all other health problems. It will improve vascular outcomes, help fight hypertension…even headaches have been shown to be reduced.”

In addition to allowing the hospital to provide better service, Geyer said it would “certainly bring more recognition” to the facility and would be a financial help as well.

“A well-run lab should be beneficial from that standpoint,” he said. “Increasing a patient’s health means lowers the length of stay, which is a financial benefit for the hospital.”

Geyer, who said that he was “very excited” by the chance to work in Demopolis, described the bottom line as a “win-win situation” for everyone involved, from patients to doctors to the community to the hospital.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me, my practice, and the whole population of Demopolis,” he said.