In an era of corporate downsizing and job outsourcing, it’s nice to know that polysomnographic and electroencephalographic technologists won’t lose any sleep over their job security anytime soon.
In fact, those qualified to work in sleep labs are in such short supply that this fall, UNC Charlotte and UNC Chapel Hill will launch the world’s first bachelor’s degree in neurodiagnostics and sleep science.
The degree is aimed at people already certified as polysomnographic technologists (those who conduct sleep studies) and electroencephalographic technologists (those who specialize in the diagnostic tools used to measure brain waves during the process). It includes advanced classes in neurodiagnostics and sleep science.
The online degree will cater to those who typically work odd hours.
“They can log in whenever. There’s no scheduled meeting times,” said Carolyn Salanger, a senior program manager for UNCC’s Distance Education program. “There’s no time when the instructor says, ‘You have to be online at this time.’ They can do it at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
The collaboration between the two universities to create the new degree was a second step in the push to recruit more sleep techs into the field.
Years ago, UNC Chapel Hill’s medical community noticed the shortage of sleep techs and persuaded community colleges to offer associate’s degrees in sleep technology. The push didn’t completely fill the void.
“What we found was we not only needed more sleep technologists, but we needed the advanced-level practitioners to teach in the community college system, to work as managers in our sleep labs and in our hospitals and as general leaders in the field,” said Mary Ellen Wells, director of the Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science Program at the UNC School of Medicine.
Graduates of the program can go on to work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, educational settings, research or industries that design new diagnostic equipment for sleep disorders.
Sleep science has become an emerging field of interest in the past two decades, primarily because of the number of people who suffer from sleep issues.
“We know that at least one out of every three people complains to their doctor about sleep,” said Dr. Bradley Vaughn, medical director of neurodiagnostics and sleep science at the UNC School of Medicine. “It’s a pretty prevalent issue.”
The problem has worsened as more people try to survive on as little sleep as possible.
“We really try to go beyond what nature has really built us for,” said Vaughn. “We evolved on a planet that has a light and dark cycle, and now we have bright lights around the clock.”
Sleep issues have chased humans for centuries, though. Literature from as early as the 1700s described a creep-crawly feeling in the legs, which experts now call “restless leg syndrome.”
But doctors back then could do little more than suggest that their patients count sheep. Today’s methods – including high-technology diagnosis and treatment with CPAP machines – have changed lives.
CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” The machine blows air into the person’s airway just firmly enough to keep it open.
Vaughn’s practice, which sees about 2,400 patients a year, has helped thousands of longtime sleep sufferers, many of whom came to him at their wits’ ends.
Vaughn remembered diagnosing a college student with narcolepsy who was on the verge of flunking out before he sought treatment.
“He was a smart young man, but terribly sleepy,” he said of the student, whose grades skyrocketed from Ds to As after help.
Vaughn has even seen lives saved through the advances in sleep science.
“I could have just died in my sleep,” said Don Carson, 63, a retired farmer from Greenville, N.C., who came to Vaughn for daytime fatigue.
A sleep study revealed a sleep apnea so severe that Carson stopped breathing 40 to 45 times a night for up to 45 seconds at a time.
“He said, ‘I had two choices: I could wear the CPAP every time I sleep or took a nap,’ or he would see me downstairs – and he was referring to the morgue,” said Carson. “ ‘God bless him and the knowledge he had. He saved my life.’ ”