Physicians need to wake up to the importance of a good night’s sleep

Studies in the past have shown that when someone complains about not being able to sleep to a doctor, more often than not, a sleeping pill is prescribed. The reason is that young doctors are taught in training that pharmaceuticals like Zolpidem (Ambien) stimulates GABA receptors in the brain, promoting sleep. There’s essentially no mention that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia works just as well for insomnia in the short term, but is superior to drugs in the long term.

You’d think that medical students would get at least some education about a part of patient’s lives that they spend 1/3 of their lives doing, which is sleep. Well, not really.

I remember getting only about 2-3 hours of lectures on sleep during medical school. I’m told by a medical school professor that due to stiff competition between various subjects such as molecular biology, anatomy, pathology and pharmacology for student’s time in classes, sleep gets squeezed out in the end.

This problem was brought to light by a study in a major sleep journal (Sleep Medicine) which showed that the quality and quantity of sleep education varied tremendously between various international countries. For example, the average number of hours on time spent on sleep education was 2.5 hours. In 1990, a survey reported that medical students received about 2 hours of sleep education, and not much has changed recently. In fact, 27% of respondents reported no training in sleep at all. Pediatric sleep topics grabbed a mere 17 minutes on average.

Even now, despite knowing that untreated obstructive sleep apnea can significantly increase your risk of heart attacks and stroke, doctors are still prescribing blood thinning medications and high blood pressure medications, while ignoring the patient’s severe snoring problem. We also know that poor quality and quantity of sleep is strongly linked to increased rates of cancer, sudden death, and motor vehicle accidents.

I think it’s time that physicians finally wake up to the importance of a good night’s sleep. Sadly, most mainstream physicians and surgeons that I know still don’t take sleep very seriously.

How can you as the patient better educate your doctor about the importance of a good night’s sleep?

Steven Y. Park is an otolaryngologist at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, New York.  He is author of Sleep, Interrupted: A Physician Reveals The #1 Reason Why So Many Of Us Are Sick And Tired.

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