Studying sleep, by degrees, at UNC-C, UNC-CH

UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill collaborate to launch groundbreaking program

CorrespondentJuly 22, 2012 

New findings on sleep disorders are eye-opening.

• Almost one-third of American workers get fewer than six hours’ sleep a night, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Learning, attention and behavior problems in kids have been linked to excessive daytime sleepiness, Penn State researchers found.

• Sleep apnea is associated with a higher cancer mortality, a Wisconsin study says.

As awareness of this health issue increases, officials at UNC Charlotte and UNC Chapel Hill are excited about a groundbreaking collaboration: offering the world’s first bachelor’s degree in neurodiagnostics and sleep science (NDSS). The online program, which will start with the fall semester, is through UNCC’s College of Health and Human Services’ Kinesiology Department.

The program – which includes a practicum and internship – involves interpretation of data, leadership classes, research and projects for presentation, understanding underlying biology, critical thinking skills and better writing skills, said Yvette Huet, interim chair of kinesiology at UNCC.

Huet said she’s never had a chronic sleeping problem, “But I know that if I don’t get sleep, my ability to function is negatively impacted, even short term. So I have certainly had issues with sleep for a variety of reasons over the course of my life, and if I were to have a more prolonged problem, I would definitely go and be evaluated at a sleep center. “I have several relatives who have had apnea that was diagnosed through sleep evaluations and who have then been prescribed different treatment modalities,” she said, “and it has made a significant positive impact on their quality of life.”

Given the increased focus on sleeping disorders in recent years, especially sleep apnea, this isn’t a onetime major. It’s been approved through UNC general administration as a bachelor’s degree program.

New territory

Huet said the UNCC-UNC Chapel Hill collaboration fills a void and marks a turning point in the field.

“The number of sleep centers across the country has increased,” she said. “As these numbers increase, we need to have people who can move up within a particular organization.

“They need management kind of people, so if you’re going to be able to do that you have to have a higher degree. There is no such higher degree at this time; this is the first one. There’s never been another degree you could get. ... This is the first of its kind to be able to meet that need for people who have more than an associate’s degree in these positions.”

Graduates may be eligible for job opportunities that include influential positions in clinical, educational and research settings of hospitals, specialized sleep and epilepsy labs, private practice, research facilities, educational institutions and manufacturing companies.

The program also enables graduates to use their professional knowledge to address problems such as misdiagnosis and health-care fraud, and create and maintain cost-effective practices.

Worldwide interest

Carolyn Salanger, senior program manager for extended academic programs at UNCC, said she saw a lot of interest in the fall program right up to its late-June application deadline.

“I heard from a woman living in the States from Switzerland. I’ve had people contacting me from Saudi Arabia, India, all over the world,” she said.

Because a prime goal of the upper-division coursework is to produce more leadership and management candidates, it’s not available to just anyone. Participants need an associate’s degree with previous credentials in the field.

“You have to have licensure credentials for electroencephalography or for polysomnography, the two programs that are part of that, along with having taken the associate’s degree,” Huet said. (Electroencephalography is a measure of brain waves that records electrical activity along the scalp. Polysomnography is a diagnostic test during which physiologic variables are measured and recorded during sleep.) These are folks who have been working already in either a sleep lab or other lab.

“They’re the technicians who will put leads in your head to get an understanding of what kind of electrical activity is going on in your brain and your body to understand what’s going on when you’re sleeping.”

Salanger said applicants must have their credentials and completed programs evaluated by a third party. “They will review curriculum from other countries to see if it is comparable to an associate’s degree program here. That’s something the admissions office does. They will communicate that to students that we need that evaluation done before we can accept them to the program.”

Some of the work in the online program is still hands-on. “They have to go and do a project at a site that they’re working at,” Huet said. “This year, because it’s the first time through, they’re going to be at the sleep center in Chapel Hill (UNC Sleep Disorders Center) with me. After this year, they should be able to do it close to where they are.”

The sleep apnea factor

The need for more management positions bodes well for the future of sleep science, Salanger said, especially with the interest in sleep apnea: “It’s really a very big issue now. It’s surprising to me that we’re the only ones who have this degree program so far.”

Sleep apnea – a common, chronic condition characterized by pauses or shallow breathing during sleep – can disrupt sleep and jeopardize overall health. The health website WebMD links it to high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, weight gain, adult asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease and car accidents.

A physician’s test can determine whether a person has sleep apnea. Possible remedies include lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, breathing devices that are used while sleeping, or surgery.

Sleep apnea “is a focus of sleep centers, where these people can then work,” Huet said. But sleep disorders of all kinds – including snoring, restless leg syndrome and insomnia – “affect millions of Americans, increasing their risk of stroke, heart attack and death, said Mary Ellen Wells, NDSS program director at UNC Chapel Hill and a key collaborator on the undertaking.

“Advanced-level sleep professionals are vital in assisting in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. The NDSS program is designed to prepare graduates with the knowledge and skill sets to fill these advanced roles. ... We anticipate graduates to become institutional, educational and research leaders needed in the field.”

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