If you've seen the Lunesta ads that warn of the drug's numerous potential side effects before promising a good night's sleep, you have some idea of how much trouble Americans have sleeping. Yet many of those with a sleep disorder like insomnia, narcolepsy or sleep apnea -- an estimated 20 million to 40 million people -- aren't even aware of it. Now a growing number of hospitals are trying to turn sleep treatments into a dependable side business.
Some hospitals are screening all patients for sleep disorders. Overweight patients, in particular, are likely to have sleep apnea, which has been linked to high blood pressure and diabetes. Up to 10 million people who have this condition haven't been diagnosed, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care.
Patients who have sleep apnea may be asked to come to a hospital "sleep lab" for evaluation. In some cases, they're referred to outside sleep centers for treatment and followup. Many hospitals are partnering with these sleep centers, some of which are located on hospital campuses.
Wakeup time for the sleep-center business
There are now about 2,800 sleep centers across the U.S. Frost & Sullivan, the consulting and research firm, predicts their revenues will hit $4.4 billion this year. Altogether, the "sleep economy" is said to be worth $20 billion. Clearly, this is a lucrative market that hospitals would like to tap.
Milder forms of sleep apnea can be cured through the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask. But in more severe cases, surgery to remove obstructive tissue may be indicated. This could be another moneymaker for hospitals as they identify additional cases of obstructive sleep apnea.
But this isn't just about money. Research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia shows that patients with sleep apnea are at higher risk of post-operative complications than those who don't have it. The hospital is designing a clinical protocol to address this risk.
Cashing in on sleep deprivation
The big growth in sleep business is based on two factors: Americans are sleep deprived, and entrepreneurs are looking for ways to cash in on that. This 2007 article in Business 2.0, for instance, chronicled the emergence of "sleep pods" and "nap rooms" catering to busy executives who want to catch a few z's during the day.
It's perfectly natural for hospitals to join this parade. Unfortunately, they're likely to trigger a new medical arms race as other hospitals catch on. And, when a new drug or a new treatment starts to spread, it often adds costs to the healthcare system without leading to savings anywhere else. Sleep centers are a perfect example: they address a problem that previously was treated much less intensively.
So here's hoping that Americans have more restful nights. But maybe, if more people lost weight and/or adopted a more relaxed lifestyle, we wouldn't have to spend $20 billion a year to get a good night's sleep.