People who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea tend to be very well aware of the personal cost of having this condition if it is left untreated. Sleep Medicine Reviews reports that OSA patients often report depression, anxiety, morning headaches, and difficulty thinking and paying attention. However, the cost of OSA is also great when it is looked at on the national level — which is why reducing these costs is so important.
The Cost of Sleep Apnea in the United States
The true price of OSA, when looked at nationally, is staggering. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) reports that part of the problem is that the numbers are so high: it is estimated that as many as 12% of the adults in the US have sleep apnea and it further estimated that around 80% of those who have sleep apnea are undiagnosed (and thus untreated). According to the AASM's calculations, the annual cost of this untreated sleep apnea is $149.6 billion a year in the United States alone.
How did the report come up with this number? Their calculations include the cost of treating comorbidities and mental health issues associated with untreated apnea; they also factored in the cost of motor vehicle accidents, lost productivity, and accidents at work. In contrast, the report notes that the cost of actually treating apnea (including the costs of diagnosis and follow up and of both surgical and non-surgical treatments) costs the United States around $12.9 billion a year.
Why Employers Should Care about OSA
The cost of OSA can also be felt by employers across the country, which is why this particular condition should be on the radar for companies who are wanting to keep themselves profitable. Company costs for this disorder are substantial: the National Safety Council estimates that employers pay approximately $3,000 more a year for workers with sleep apnea (compared to workers without this disorder).
So where does the price of OSA to employers stem from? Part of the study in Sleep Medicine Reviews looked specifically that the cost of OSA in the workplace. It found that this disorder is associated with negative impacts on work productivity (due, in turn, to increased challenges with managing time, impaired work output, and mental-interpersonal performance) and that this hold true across industries. The report also notes that OSA is associated with work problems such as missed work, falling asleep on the job, and an increased risk of sick leave or even permanent disability.
What Can Be Done to Reduce the Cost of OSA?
While these numbers seem staggering, there are in fact actionable ways in which the cost of OSA can be lowered.
According to Fatigue Science, part of the problem with OSA are the obstacles to being diagnosed. The latest guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend either a polysomnography sleep study or a home sleep apnea test to help diagnose this condition, which requires a referral from a physician. However, since many OSA patients are unaware that they have this condition, they do not think to necessarily discuss it with their healthcare provider in the first place. Thus, it is important to increase public education about this condition (specifically about things like risk factors and symptoms to look for) so that patients understand what to report to their doctors.
Another way to combat the lack of patient awareness about this condition is to encourage more employer-based OSA screenings. Apnea Med reports that companies can avoid expensive issues such as disability and decreased productivity if they increase testing: “By spending your company's resources on the costs of testing for sleep apnea, you're ensuring your employees are getting the prescription they need to be alert and productive."
A concrete example of this, reported in USA Today, is the Atlanta-based utility company, Southern Co. Three years ago, the company began apnea screening. So far, 4,000 of the 30,000 Southern Co employees have been tested and 1,500 have been treated. The company reports that this policy, in 2018 alone, saved on healthcare costs to the tune of $1.2 million dollars.
In short, it is not just the individual who suffers when OSA is left untreated: society pays the price as well. These costs stem from decreased work productivity, an increased risk for chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes, and an increased risk of accidents. However, basic measures like increasing patient awareness of this disease and of encouraging employers to screen for OSA can help to mitigate these costs for patients and society as a whole.