Nearly one in three adults suffer from moderate to severe sleep disordered breathing in Singapore. In severe cases of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a person can even stop breathing once every minute. That’s 60 times an hour or 300 times a night.
Dismayed by the 50 percent success rate of removing the uvula (the finger-shaped tissue that hangs down the roof of the mouth) to widen the airway, Dr Kenny Pang turned to medical literature from the 1950s. If surgeons could stitch the palatopharyngeus muscle to close off a baby’s cleft palate, he thought he could open the passageway of the pharyngeal walls by rotating the same muscles upwards and forward.
Pioneered in 2004 and published in an American peer review journal in 2006, the novel procedure, named Pang’s Expansion Pharyngoplasty, was found to have a success rate of over 80 percent.
“The field of sleep medicine is fascinating. There are the insomniacs, the ones who can’t sleep, and then there are those who sleep 10 hours but can’t stay awake because they have sleep apnoea,” says Pang.
“They are the ones who stop breathing in their sleep. They choke and don’t even realise it. It is their partners who get worried because it looks like they are gasping for air.”
Besides associated health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep apnics are more prone to driving and work-related accidents than normal sleepers.
Not only does Pang waive his fee for needy patients in precarious situations, he has never patented any of his surgical procedures. (He is also the inventor of the Anterior Palatoplasty technique, also for the treatment of OSA.) Instead, he has taught and demonstrated his techniques to more than 600 surgeons around the world and authored a medical textbook.
“I thought that even if I had 1,000 patients in a year, more would benefit from these techniques if I taught other surgeons,” explains Pang, 49, who is in private practice and runs the Asia Sleep Centre along Orchard Road.
One-third of his patients are children and the ability to see them flourish post-treatment is what Pang, who originally intended to go into paediatrics, finds most rewarding.
“They sleep peacefully through the night. Their academic performance increases. They put on weight and grow taller. The improvement is like day and night,” he shares.
Half of adults with hypertension no longer needed blood pressure medication post surgery, a multi-centre study also revealed.
“He feels encouraged when he sees patients doing well,” his wife Carol tells us.
“He’s passionate about his work.”
Academic and with an inquisitive mind, Pang’s latest research — in collaboration with dentist Dr David Tay — has found a link between teeth grinding (or bruxism), the collapse of the upper airway and poor quality sleep.
For more on trailblazing leaders, read our series on alphas here.