The Sleep Coach

the sleep coach

Person: I just met: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a sleep coach.

Person: I’m sorry, you’re a what?

Me: A Sleep. Coach.

Person: That’s a thing?

Me: Yeah, it’s a thing.

Person: So, I do this weird thing in my sleep…

By Drew M. Copeland, RPSGT, CCSH and Teresa Power DeNike, BS, CCSH

For Sleep Coaches, it’s common to hear some version of the above exchange when we first tell someone what we do. And while it might be strange to start peppering a stranger with health questions, it’s clear that people today are becoming more and more aware of the importance of sleep. Americans google the word “sleep” about 5 million times every month. The market for “sleep aids” is expected to hit $101 billion per year by 2023. Sleep has established itself as a critical topic in our nation’s collective conversation.

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With society’s appreciation for sleep, the stage is set for the practice of Sleep Coaching to go mainstream. But, where does the role of a Sleep Coach fit into the ecosystem of sleep health? And is it possible that Sleep Coaches are exactly what the field of Sleep Medicine needs to survive? To answer these questions, we need to define what a sleep coach is.

Since it is that time of year, let’s use the analogy of doing your taxes. For the typical American, there are three options: do them yourself, purchase tax software, or hire an accountant. If your finances are straightforward, you are self-motivated, and you are willing to accept some risk, you might choose to download Form 1040, break out your calculator and go to town. If your financial situation is complex, you might prefer that someone else do all the work. If you want to minimize your risks while maximizing your returns, you will probably be inclined to open your wallet and hire an accountant. But . . . if you are like 46% of people in this country, you will be perfectly fine with software that gives you clear directions and keeps you from messing anything up as you do the work yourself.

In this analogy, doing your own taxes equals creating a personal behavior modification plan. Hiring an accountant equals seeking help from a physician, psychiatrist, or clinical psychologist. Sleep coaches are the TurboTax® of sleep. Let’s unpack that.

A Sleep Coach offers structured guidance to improve sleep. “Coaching” usually consists of some variation of the following:

  • Determine the client’s goals
  • Assess their current state
  • Identify barriers and/or gaps in knowledge
  • Provide quality, digestible education/tools
  • Monitor their progress
  • Provide timely interventions

This model works exceedingly well in sleep, but it’s also important to clarify what a Sleep Coach is not. Sleep Coaches are not physicians, psychologists, therapists, or counselors. We do not diagnose or treat sleep disorders. While those restrictions are necessary and appropriate, the sleep coach’s limited scope of work does not limit a coach’s impact. In fact, a fundamental aspect of sleep coaching is to collaborate closely with our client’s medical and mental health providers.

In some cases, we pass along our notes and insights to our client’s clinical care team. In other cases, we recognize that the client needs more help than we can provide, and we help them navigate the labyrinth of our current healthcare system. Finally, in an ideal scenario, we are employed directly by these healthcare providers to supplement and augment their existing care plans.

An excellent real-life comparison to sleep coaching is a personal trainer. A personal trainer is hired to help their clients meet their fitness goals or optimize their physical performance. If clients have an obvious injury, they should see a physician. If clients need to rehab from an injury, they should see a physical therapist. If clients are able to self-motivate, they can skip the trainer and follow whatever “SIX WEEKS TO A SIX-PACK” article is in Men’s Health® this month. But for the typical, healthy person who is looking for a little help, a well-trained, certified personal trainer is exactly what they need to meet their goals. In the same respect, for the typical, healthy person that wants to improve their sleep, a sleep coach might just be the perfect middle ground between seeing a sleep physician and trusting a WebMD article.

There are also unique benefits to working with a Sleep Coach. Because we approach our clients as partners, we can meet them exactly where they are—an approach that often results in improved openness and willingness to change. Also, because most sleep coaches work outside of insurance, we do not have to jump through the unnecessary hoops that a typical sleep specialist must navigate. And finally, because we are not double and triple-booking to meet our RVU thresholds or to fulfill our budgeted KPIs, we can take our time to listen deeply and engage our clients. It is amazing how effective a 30-minute unrushed, empathetic Zoom meeting can be to someone who is worried they will never sleep again.

Sleep coaching for children has been around for many years. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and anyone who has raised a child with poor sleep knows how necessary sleep is to both the child and the parents. In recent years, there has also been an uptick in the number adult sleep coaching certifications one can earn online. And while many of these courses have a lot of quality information, the recent trend in using the BRPT’s CCSH certification to add gravitas to independent sleep coaching is both encouraging and exciting. The versatile and robust CCSH credential is used to great effect in inpatient OSA screening and outpatient therapy monitoring settings—the independent sleep coach forms a third pillar that only serves to add more value to the CCSH.

Now that we know what a Sleep Coach does and where they fit into the ecosystem of sleep health, let’s address my second question: Why are sleep coaches essential to sleep medicine? We have all seen the recent trend in consumer sleep technology: Wearables, nearables, airables . . . there has been an explosion in consumer tech-focused on sleep. And why is that? Well, when you combine society’s increased interest in sleep with the glacial pace of innovation from the medical field AND Big Tech’s ever-increasing success in the healthcare space, it’s no surprise that our patients are turning to their Apple Watches® or Oura Rings® or smart pillows to give them insight into their sleep.

But why do we think that market expansion will be limited to technology? Those of us who have spent any time in sleep medicine have seen the struggles that patients go through on a daily basis:

  • Six months to see a sleep doctor.
  • Three months to have a sleep study.
  • CPAP issues that go unresolved.
  • Oral appliances delivered by “weekend training course” dentists.
  • A complete and total lack of access to CBT-I.

Patients with sleep issues need reliable access to care and far too many are not receiving that. If those of us within the field of sleep medicine do not act, someone else will happily step up. They will present solutions backed with a fraction of the knowledge and experience we have. They will do it with the primary goal of making money. They will absolutely succeed because they are quite simply better at selling and marketing than we are.

We can’t snap our fingers and create 30,000 more sleep physicians, psychologists, and APPs to meet with every patient that has a sleep issue. Even if we could, that would be a poor use of our clinical resources (see earlier tax prep example). Credentialed, connected, and competent sleep coaches allow our overburdened providers to operate at the top of their licenses. They improve patient education and access. They monitor to ensure that the prescribed therapy is effective and help them switch therapies if not. The only thing necessary for under-qualified but well-intentioned “sleep experts” to succeed is for the real sleep experts to do nothing.

We have an opportunity to increase patient engagement, promote therapy adherence, and empower our patients to take ownership of their sleep health. Credentialed Sleep Coaches are the right tool for the right job, and I am excited to see the day when they are a common and integral component in all clinical sleep programs.

So, go ahead. Tell me about that weird thing you do in your sleep… I’m listening.

Drew M. Copeland, RPSGT, CCSH has been a sleep technologist for 18 years and served on the BRPT’s Exam Development Committee. He is a sleep coach and operations guru with Sleep Better NYC, a fully virtual sleep coaching business.

Teresa Power DeNike, BS, CCSH is a board-certified clinical sleep educator, national speaker, and the founder of Sleep Better NYC. After 14 years in healthcare sales and consulting, Teresa witnessed family, friends, and patients struggle through the typical pathways for sleep support; SBNYC was founded as a solution, to provide sleep coaching and care coordination.

Source: Sleep Lab Magazine Jan/Feb 2022

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