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Standard tests may underestimate the severity of sleep apnea in black patients

By Cara Murez

health day reporter

WEDNESDAY, May 24, 2023 (HealthDay News) — When it comes to diagnosing sleep apnea, current screening methods may put black patients at a disadvantage, new research shows.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep. An initial screening tool could be an overnight pulse oximeter test – a small device clipped to the fingertip that measures blood oxygen levels.

Investigators began this study after seeing research that pulse oximeters used on intensive care unit patients during the COVID-19 pandemic may be less accurate in black patients than in white patients.

“While skin pigmentation appears to affect oximetry results, we were unsure if the same would be true when testing for OSA,” said study co-author Ali Azarbarzin. , assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

“We hypothesized that would be the case,” Azarbarzin said in a press release from the American Thoracic Society.

So the researchers looked at the results of nearly 2,000 patients of different races and ethnicities who performed nighttime sleep studies at home.

Investigators compared the average change in participants’ oxygen levels after each breathing pause using equipment that included oximeters.

The team found that black participants had a smaller decrease in oxygen saturation – blood oxygen level – for each breath pause compared to white patients. This held true after taking into account other factors that can influence blood oxygen levels, including age, gender, body mass index (a measurement based on weight and height), and smoking.

“Our results suggest that these measurement issues may lead to an underestimation of OSA severity in blacks. However, it is unclear whether this underestimation of oxygen drops should lead to important differences in the diagnosis and management of OSA in blacks and other dark-skinned people,” Azarbarzin said.

“Nevertheless, these results underscore the need to rigorously test the accuracy of oximeters in diverse populations and also to determine whether factors other than oximeter characteristics could account for differences in oxygen patterns with breathing pauses,” a- he added.

The results were to be presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Thoracic Society, in Washington, D.C. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The Sleep Foundation has more on obstructive sleep apnea.

SOURCE: American Thoracic Society, press release, May 23, 2023

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