Study highlights sleep deprivation in Air National Guard medical personnel

New research in Military Psychology indicates that National Guard service members suffer reductions in sleep as they transition from civilian to military duty, which could harm their effectiveness.

“As a former public health officer and chief nurse (Lt Col, retired 2012) for the Air National Guard, my interest in the health of the medical personnel evolved after several critical exercises that involved severe sleep deprivation of all medical and non-medical disaster response team service members,” said study author Denise A. Smart, an associate professor at Washington State University.

“I was also aware that many of the nurses (RNs) and other medical providers worked evening and night shifts with little to no recovery time before participating in disaster response training or real-world disaster responses at the state/national level.”

“The science behind sleep hygiene, sleep deprivation, and disrupted sleep patterns points to clinical and medical errors in the civilian healthcare settings. Our question was one of describing sleep patterns for two National Guard medical units whose mission is to train and respond to disasters; to examine points of interventions and make recommendations to supervisors and commanders,” Smart said.

In the study, 77 National Guard medical personnel wore wrist activity monitors to measure their sleep activity for about two weeks. The participants sleep activity was monitored during their civilian time, during their transition from civilian to military duty, and during a 3 to 5 day disaster training exercise.

The researchers found that the transition from civilian life to military duties was associated with a reduction in sleep. The transition and disaster-training periods were also associated with reduced cognitive effectiveness scores — an estimate of mental effectiveness that is calculated using the time since the participant last slept, time of day, and total amount of sleep in the previous 72 hours.

“Nurses and medical providers that work variable shifts, night shift, or have sleep disruption patterns should educate themselves on proper sleep hygiene practices, talk with their medical providers about sleep hygiene, sleep apnea, or insomnia and change behaviors related to cell phone usage, computer and TV screen time 1-2 hours prior to sleep, and caffeine usage,” Smart told PsyPost.

“Insufficient sleep impacts quality of life, can impact safe driving practices after shift work enroute to home, and can compromise safe and quality care of patients.”

The researchers believe that the sleep restriction experienced during the training exercises is probably a conservative estimation of real-world conditions.

“While this was a small sample size, we did have over 85-95% recruitment and participation from two notable Air National Guard medical units. Field research has limitations such as missing data due to lack on WiFi connectivity in remote training areas, equipment issues, and removal of sleep tracking equipment when personnel were required to put on their personal protective equipment for 1-2 hours at a time,” Smart said.

“The National Guard medical personnel who participated were critical to the success of this study and their commitment to their Guard personnel, their profession, their community and their country should be recognized and appreciated,” Smart added.

“These dedicated personnel live and work in two worlds and perform with the utmost professionalism. This is one of the first studies to address research with National Guard personnel in non-combat environments.”

The study, “Sleep deprivation in Air National Guard medical personnel responding to simulated disaster-training exercises“, was authored by Lois James, Denise Smart, Tamara Odom-Maryon, Kimberly A. Honn, and Stephanie Rowan.