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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 August 2005, 01:06 GMT 02:06 UK
Doctors taught to sleep soundly
A man awake in bed
Having trouble sleeping can affect patients and doctors alike
Trainee doctors are being taught the importance of getting a good night's sleep in a pioneering course.

Medical staff are renowned for working long shifts, and tiredness has been linked to an increased risk of errors.

The course at Warwick Medical School teaches students how to deal with their sleep problems, and those of patients.

Lack of sleep is a common problem, but the professor teaching the Warwick course said it is barely covered in the usual undergraduate curriculum.

The more medics that know about sleep, the better
Neil Stanley, British Sleep Society

The course ran for the first time last year, with 10 students.

A second, for double the number of students, is planned for the next academic year.

Professor Ed Piele, who came up with the idea for the course, said sleep medicine was relevant to every area of medicine, from psychiatry to paediatrics.

But he added: "Doctors' sleep patterns are also an issue.

"There are safety issues and public health messages that are important for doctors.

"Their hours aren't as bad as they were 25 or 30 years ago.

"The shift patterns have changed, but they are designed to take account of management needs, rather than human ones.

"And research has shown that if you change people's shift patterns too frequently, they become more tired and less effective."

He added: "The real aim of the course is to enable the students to help patients, but I think it's true that you apply everything you learn to yourself.

"As they look at everything, they will ask how they can improve their own sleep."

Sleep 'hygiene'

Students are taught chronobiology, the science behind sleep, covering subjects such as the effect of disrupting the circadian rhythm, which governs when we sleep and wake.

Working regular night shifts has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and breast cancer.

The students who opt to take the 12-week sleep module also learn about disorders directly related to sleep, such as insomnia and sleep apnoea.

The students also learn "sleep hygiene", which covers how to maximise the chance of having a good night's rest, such as not drinking caffeine near to bedtime and getting up at the same time each day to get into a regular sleep pattern.

Sarah Padley, who has just completed her second year at Warwick, is one of those who took the course.

She said: "I chose the module because sleep is something that affects everyone.

"If you have a bad night's sleep, you feel dreadful.

"If you're ill and have a bad night's sleep, it's a nightmare.

"I have an interest in psychiatric problems.

"If people are depressed, they can't sleep. If you can help them sleep, it can be a huge benefit."

'Cinderella subject'

Sarah, 24, who has decided to spend some time studying with sleep specialists at Harvard University, said what she had learnt on the course had also affected her own sleep patterns.

"I try to get up at the same time every day and I try to make sure I have a break between studying and going to bed.

"And I don't drink caffeinated drinks near to the time I want to go to sleep."

Neil Stanley, of the British Sleep Society, welcomed the course.

"Sleep is a Cinderella subject. Doctors usually go through training with no knowledge of the subject.

"But we all do it, and a good proportion of us have problems doing it.

"And it's been shown that between 60 and 65% of people who go to GP surgeries have a primary or secondary sleep disorder.

"So the more medics that know about sleep, the better."

An insomniac's quest for sleep
21 Jul 05 |  Magazine

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