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What Is a Sleep Specialist?

Last updated: June 2022

The term sleep specialist seems pretty specific: a professional person who specializes in sleep medicine. However, the term describes more than just doctors with a few hours of sleep medicine training.

Who is a sleep specialist?

This title describes a medical professional who has undergone rigorous training in the subspecialty of sleep medicine. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the American Association of Sleep Technologists, and the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (depending upon the role of the sleep specialist) oversee and sanction this training. All sleep specialists sit through stringent board exams to earn their credentials, which they must maintain and renew regularly in order to practice.

The US has more than 2,500 accredited sleep medicine practices, centers, labs, and clinics, all held to strict rules for accreditation by the AASM. Some doctors seek out sleep medicine as their chief specialty. But doctors in other fields—such as pulmonologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and cardiologists—often become sleep specialists too because sleep health is intrinsically linked to their other specialties. Some dentists also undergo significant training to become sleep specialists.

Meanwhile, allied healthcare professionals who have undergone intensive training also perform work as sleep specialists in their specific areas:

  • Respiratory therapists
  • Sleep technologists
  • Certified clinical sleep health educators/sleep navigators
  • Nurses
  • Durable medical equipment (DME) providers

Who isn’t a sleep specialist?

Others may offer assistance with sleep concerns, but they aren’t sleep specialists unless they possess AASM-recognized sleep medicine credentials.

Sleep coaches

Families hire these life coaches to assist with sleeping problems. While helpful, most don’t provide services covered by insurance, nor do they hold medical credentials or undergo formal sleep medicine training.

Family doctors

Primary care physicians have minimal knowledge of sleep medicine. They may use 1 of many sleep disorder screening tools in order to aid them in making proper referrals to credentialed sleep medicine physicians.

Pharmacists

While they have knowledge about sleep medications and medication side effects that cause sleep problems or daytime sleepiness, they cannot independently prescribe medications for sleep or adjust any medications without the oversight and approval of physicians.

What does a sleep specialist do?

Physicians with sleep medicine credentials:

  • Screen patients for possible sleep disorders
  • Order, oversee, and interpret diagnostic tests for possible sleep disorders
  • Diagnose (or rule out) sleep disorders
  • Treat diagnosed sleep disorders
  • Work in concert with other specialists when patients with sleep disorders have other conditions that affect sleep health
  • Provides education about sleep disorders

A credentialed sleep technologist or respiratory therapist:

  • Screens patients for possible sleep disorders
  • Runs diagnostic tests on patients to identify possible sleep disorders
  • Works in concert with diagnosing sleep physicians to assist newly diagnosed patients (mostly with sleep apnea) with various therapies
  • Provides education about sleep disorders

A dentist trained in sleep medicine:

  • Screens patients for possible sleep disorders
  • Refers patients with possible sleep disorders to sleep specialists
  • Works in concert with sleep specialists to fabricate, fit, and maintain oral appliance therapies used to treat their patients’ sleep apnea
  • Provides education about sleep disorders

Someone who provides DME:

  • Supplies patients with PAP equipment
  • Teaches patients how to use PAP therapy
  • Provides support to patients struggling with therapy
  • Ensures that patients using PAP replenish equipment to avoid therapy disruption
  • Provides education about sleep disorders

Where do you find a sleep specialist?

Please note: that only credentialed sleep specialists can legally provide these services, regardless of their location.

Hospital

Many, though not all, hospitals have in-center sleep clinics for conducting sleep studies.

Out of center

Some hospitals build sleep center satellites away from campus, supporting practitioners who generally align with their system.

Private lab

Sometimes, sleep specialists work independently of hospital affiliation in freestanding clinics.

When might you see a sleep specialist?

At night, your encounter with a sleep specialist occurs because you’re:

  • Undergoing a specialist-attended overnight test in the lab
  • Having a follow-up test (titration) to determine your best treatment

But in the daytime, you may consult a sleep specialist for many reasons. For instance, you may be:

  • Following through on a referral
  • Getting a sleep disorder screening
  • Being shown how to use a home sleep apnea test (HSAT), which you’ll take home with you
  • Returning a completed HSAT
  • Learning the results of your test
  • Undergoing a daytime sleep test (for night workers)
  • Undergoing tests to measure daytime sleepiness
  • Undergoing a PAP “nap” test
  • Being shown how to use PAP therapy
  • Getting help to overcome challenges in using PAP

How do you visit a sleep specialist?

The most common way to visit a sleep specialist is face to face in a sleep center. However, many visits with a sleep specialist may take place virtually. Patients who live far away from sleep centers may find these virtual visits convenient, while others have found them to be a safer option during the pandemic.
For more informatin, see: "Who's Who in the Sleep Clinic?" Please share your experience with your sleep specialist in a comment below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The SleepApnea.Sleep-Disorders.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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