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March 15, 2017
By: Michael Petersen

Fighting healthcare’s hidden enemy, eight hours at a time

Promoting proper sleep is something we all need to work on; especially those of us in healthcare. I’m more than an authority on the subject. I am a case study.

Science has been revealing a great deal about the growing problem of sleep deprivation. Interruptions to our well-documented circadian rhythms can heighten stress, among other issues. So-called “power naps” won’t cut it. The body needs its full eight hours per day, and at regular intervals.

Sleep deprivation has become chronic, yet it doesn’t get the same attention as obesity or smoking. When doctors have that check-up talk with patients, how many enquire: “How much sleep do you get?”

When I was a practicing ER pediatrician at a Texas hospital, the answer to that question was easy: “Not much.” Like many residents coming up from med school, I ignored my body when it came to sleep.

It shouldn’t be an either-or predicament. I don’t think it is, either. Like I said, a lot depends on developing a discipline around better sleep hygiene.

The medical community needs to get smarter about sleep. There are signs it has. When I was in residency, we often worked 120-hour weeks and 36-hour shifts. Today there’s a push to set reasonable hours and increase the number of residents on staff. These trends are long overdue.

There are other things we can be doing; like passing on the good word about sleep to patients. Talk to them about their lifestyles, about how they manage stress and if they practice good sleep hygiene.

Good sleep hygiene includes turning off your cell phone at night and not watching television at bedtime. It means eating foods conducive to sleep, and avoiding what isn’t. Better sleep may come from something as simple as lowering the temperature in one’s bedroom.

Sleep hygiene remains a difficult concept for many, including too many doctors. Why? Maybe it’s because we are so bad at sleeping ourselves it’s hard to set the right example for patients. We need to change that, for their sakes and ours.

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