Everyone needs it and most of us can’t get enough, yet mobile health innovation has mostly put sleep on the back burner – until recently. While experts see sleep as the final frontier in digital health, mHealth innovations are already taking place around disorders like sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea suffer from not getting enough oxygen, which in the worst case can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes, depression and headaches. More commonly, interrupted breathing leads to worse sleep, which can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness.There are two types of sleep apnea. The more common is obstructive sleep apnea, which is cased by airway blockage when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses during sleep. The other type – central sleep apnea – also leads to interrupted breathing, but results from the brain failing to signal the muscles to breathe, due to instability in the respiratory center.

Who is affected?

The CDC estimates that there are 50 million to 70 million adults in the US who suffer from some type of sleep or wakefulness disorder, including at least 25 million afflicted by sleep apnea. Anyone can be affected, but risk factors include being male, overweight, over age 40 or having a large neck size or large tonsils, tongue or jawbone.

What mHealth solutions exist for sleep apnea?

Treatment of sleep apnea depends on the cause, but it is often effective to gently administer air pressure during sleep. This process, known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), requires patients to wear a mask connected to a pump that provides air into the nasal passages to keep the airway open during sleep.

1. Making CPAP therapy more connected

CPAP machines have been around for decades, but mobile health is breathing new life into this traditional therapy. Most CPAP devices are clunky – an airflow generator, hose and full face mask – and in the past there hasn’t been an easy way to get treatment and sleep data back to care providers.Companies like ResMed are changing that with mHealth platforms that connect wirelessly to CPAP machines and care providers, automatically collecting vital signs and sleep activity and storing them in the patient’s EHR. These platforms improve the efficacy of sleep apnea therapy from both ends – doctors receive better data to help them track and identify problems and intervene with coaching and support, while patients can view daily sleep therapy data, interact with web-based patient education and receive care reminders and therapy data alerts.

2. A wearable monitor for sleep apnea patients

Launched by Neogia at CES 2017, the Motio HealthWear connected bracelet is the first wearable for detecting sleep apnea and improving sleep quality. The bracelet collects biometric data like heart rate, altimetry, oximetry and respiratory rate and makes this data available to patients and caregivers via a mobile app. The app uses an algorithm to learn about the user’s sleep habits and “prevent, diagnose and monitor” sleep apnea.

3. Putting Watson to work on user-reported sleep data

In a partnership announced at HiMSS16, IBM’s Watson Health and the American Sleep Apnea Association teamed up to launch the SleepHealth app and SleepHealth Mobile Study. Using Apple’s Research Kit platform, the app helps users chart the connections between their daily lives and sleep patterns, offering tips for better sleep. Watson’s machine-learning analytics engine then analyzes user-reported data on a wide range of metrics, including quality and length of sleep, restlessness and snoring and factors like chronic conditions, habits, diet, exercise and mood.The SleepHealth app allows participants to learn more about their current sleep habits and be equal partners in monitoring and managing their symptoms. Using the computing power of Watson Heath, the study hopes to advance clinical research on sleep and sleep disorders and how they affect other medical conditions.