The hours of work completed in a day in the EMS industry can be long with seemingly endless shifts that can last up to 24 hours or more. Irregular sleeping patterns and sleep deprivation are common issues public safety professionals face on a day-to-day basis. With the help of Dr. Daniel Patterson, Associate Professor for Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, he is helping to change the narrative for all workers.
Inspired by his family history of paramedicine, Dr. Patterson found his calling from passions stemming from his uncle who was a paramedic. His family ties to the public safety industry led him to focus on the health and safety for emergency workers. Dr. Patterson has been with the University of Pittsburgh since 2007 and is focused on improving the sleep health of EMS clinicians.
In his research, Dr. Patterson strives to identify threats to different aspects of sleep health, such as sleep quality, and mitigate these factors for all who work in public safety and emergency medicine. Sleep health of EMS clinicians is not discussed as widely as it should be but with the help of innovative approaches such as real-time assessment and intervention, his research will help others on a national and international level.
To date, Dr. Patterson’s research has highlighted the problem of poor sleep and fatigue in EMS. He has determined that half of EMS workers get less than six hours of sleep a day. Greater than half feel severely fatigued, which can have devasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, around-the-clock shift work will always be prevalent because of the immediate assistance EMS workers are called upon to save lives. It is a higher calling that comes at a price but identifying new strategies to help EMS clinicians to deal with shift work are becoming readily available through Dr. Patterson’s research. Use of innovative data collection tools and intervention strategies will be the driving force for improving alertness and vigilance while on duty so that sharper performance can provide better care to patients at all hours of the day (and night).
One tool in its pilot phase is called the SleepTrackTXT tool, which is based on a data collection technique known as ecological momentary assessment (EMA). Dr. Patterson and his team are using this approach through mobile phones to facilitate fatigue assessment during an EMS worker’s shift. To facilitate the assessment, EMS workers receive text messages at various times during shift work and during off-days to gauge levels of fatigue. Simple yet effective, EMS professionals can rate their level of fatigue on a scale of 0-5 with 5 being the most fatigued or sleepy. The tool is responsive, and if a worker feels more fatigued, an automated system will respond back with proactive strategies the EMS clinician can adopt in order to mitigate fatigue. Some of these strategies include suggesting the EMS clinician take a brief nap when applicable, use physical exercise to improve alertness, or consume a healthy amount of caffeine to lower feelings of sleepiness. The goal of this research is to provide more immediate / real-time resources to help EMS professionals work through long duration shifts. One goal is to improve safety for both the EMS worker and the patient. Notably, the mobile technology has been shown effective for 12-hour shifts, and this technology will be replicated on a nationwide scale from the pilot work to a nationwide federally funded research project. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is funding this research.
Additionally, Dr. Patterson has led development of 10 brief educational modules that are designed to educate EMS workers on different aspects of sleep health, sleep physiology, sleep disorders, and fatigue recognition and more. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is funding this research. Brief yet effective, these short modules will give insight on how to mitigate fatigue and educate EMS workers on the unvoiced concerns that are gaining more attention as EMS health for workers advance in the industry.
The work done by Dr. Patterson and his dedicated team will promote healthy sleep so that EMS professionals can tackle the challenges of shift work and stress associated with caring for patients at their moment of greatest need. This research, which uses mobile phone technology and brief educational modules, will likely reshape the way we think about sleep in public safety and ultimately save more lives. Though these studies are in the preparation phase, it will help others on a nationwide scale in the future for the collective good.