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Harvard researchers examining new sleep apnea screening tool

SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- A simple test that measures attention, alertness and reaction time could one day be administered to drivers when they renew their licence to determine if they are likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a...


SOMERVILLE, Mass. — A simple test that measures attention, alertness and reaction time could one day be administered to drivers when they renew their licence to determine if they are likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a Harvard study has suggested.

A new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, explored the usefulness of a psychomotor vigilance test (PVT) as a way to screen drivers for sleep apnea.

The PVT is a 10-minute test that can be conducted at a licensing agency or at a driver’s home terminal. It’s conducted using portable handheld computers and the results can be quickly read and interpreted, the researchers found.
“Our goal is to develop objective screening methods beyond obesity for obstructive sleep apnea to be used in occupational health settings,” said the study’s senior author, Stefanos N. Kales, MD, MPH, division chief and medical director of employee and industrial medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, where the study was conducted. “Subjective reports of excessive daytime sleepiness are notoriously unreliable especially during fitness-for-work examinations, and obesity in isolation as a screen has generated resistance from many drivers.”

The study found 8% of commercial drivers who took the PVT were found to be “microsleepers”.

“This novel use of the PVT is extremely promising as a potential, 10-minute frontline check for sleepiness accomplished at professional drivers’ federally mandated licensing exams, similar to vision and hearing screens common in current use,” said Kales. If the method and reaction time criteria are refined and validated in this setting, the PVT can be used to identify drivers needing urgent sleep evaluation before being qualified to continue as commercial drivers, he noted.


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