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New Online Program Targets Sleep Disorders

Program Helps Clinicians Diagnose, Treat Sleep Problems

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By Jill Gambon

For many people, missing out on a solid night’s sleep means they’ll have a weary slog through the following day. But for people who suffer from chronic sleep problems, the consequences may be far more serious and are often undetected by their health-care providers.

As many as 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, putting them at elevated risk for numerous long-term health problems, from obesity to cancer.  Compounding the issue is the fact that sleep-related problems frequently go undiagnosed in part because health-care providers receive little education and training in sleep science.  However, a new program offered through UMass Lowell’s Division of Online and Continuing Education aims to change that.  The online graduate certificate in Sleep and Sleep Disorders is designed to help clinicians better understand, diagnose and treat sleep problems and related diseases.

Public Health Impact

“This is an area with huge implications for public health,” says School of Health & Environment Prof. Geoffry Phillips McEnany, who is coordinator of the online certificate program.  “Hypertension, diabetes and obesity are out of control in this country but clinicians aren’t looking at them from the perspective of sleep disorders.”

In recent years, the discipline of sleep science has exploded, with researchers increasingly uncovering links between diseases like sleep apnea and increased stroke and cardiovascular risks.  Still, studies point out that physicians and nurses receive just two to four hours of formal training in sleep medicine as undergraduates. UMass Lowell’s new online certificate program is one of the few graduate-level programs offered anywhere.

The groundwork for the online certificate program was laid a few years ago when the University received a $140,000 grant from the pharmaceutical company Sepracor (now known as Sunovian) to develop a 12-module online program on sleep disorders for nurses.  Seventy-five percent of those students expressed interest in a certificate program for further training, McEnany says.  The new program, which has now has about 20 students enrolled, consists of four three-credit courses covering the fundamentals of sleep science and chronobiology, the range of sleep-related disorders, diagnoses and treatments.

Sleepy-Headed Society

The students, who currently include nurses, physicians and respiratory therapists, must also complete a capstone research project. One student in Texas is studying the impact of sleep deprivation on law enforcement professionals. That issue has been under the spotlight recently with a new national study highlighting serious public safety issues related to sleep disorders among police officers. For instance, the study found that 26 percent of the officers nodded off while driving at least once a month. 

Interest in the online program is on the rise, McEnany says, with inquiries coming from as far away as Indonesia and Italy.  With a growing recognition among health-care providers for the need to better assess and treat sleep disorders, Enany expects enrollment in the program will continue to expand. “We live in a sleep-deprived society,” he says.