An observant sleep medicine physician approached the school with a pitch: expose third- and fourth-year students to the sleep subspecialty.

Medical school curriculums generally don’t take a deep dive into sleep medicine. Some medical students may not even realize they have the option to subspecialize in sleep. This gap in education may be fueling a shortage of sleep medicine physicians.

Some medical schools are taking steps to change that. The University of North Carolina (UNC) in Ashville, NC, recently appointed Muhammad Sayed, MD, RST, RPSGT, to develop a sleep medicine curriculum in his new role as an assistant professor.

Through this program, third- and fourth-year students will have the opportunity to do rotations at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, NC, part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. This is where Sayed will continue to work as chief of sleep medicine while he supervises the UNC program.

Sayed will spend time working one-on-one with students and giving lectures on campus. He hopes that through this initiative more future physicians will be exposed to and become interested in this area of medicine that is so crucial to overall health.

“It’s known here in the US that medical students and even residents, in general, don’t get enough education in sleep medicine, if any. They get this education only when they start doing a fellowship in sleep medicine,” says Sayed. “I think we really need to expand that, to start early.”

Sleep has long been a focal point of Sayed’s career. About four years ago, he moved to Ashville, NC, to build and run the sleep center at the local VA hospital. Soon after, Sayed noticed that UNC was launching a medical school. He approached administrators at the university, director and assistant dean Robyn Latessa, MD, and Sandra Whitlock, MD, associate director. He pitched an idea. “I can help you with a sleep medicine program,” he told them.

The idea for the new program developed intuitively. He says, “I knew that most medical schools do not have the curriculum for sleep medicine and it is something that is known now that really there is some deficiency.” Sayed says he wanted to try to do something to change that.

The UNC university administration liked the pitch and they started collaborating on plans for the new program.

Since sleep medicine overlaps with many specialties, to set up the program Sayed is joining forces with department heads in neurology, pulmonology, and cardiology.

Through the sleep medicine curriculum, students will spend a month learning all aspects of this subspecialty. “They will have a strong background in all the specialties that contribute to sleep medicine,” says Sayed.

The VA hospital will also benefit since some students may be invited to work in the sleep center after they graduate. “It is a win-win situation,” says Sayed.

Sayed first became interested in sleep medicine as a neurology fellow at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. There, he studied stroke patients and learned that two-thirds suffered from untreated sleep apnea—a fact that drove him to look more seriously at the study of sleep.

Since then, he has held fellowships with the American Academy of Neurology and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. All the while, he noticed that many patients with sleep issues do not get the treatment that they need. This new program at UNC Ashville is one step to filling the gap.

“I am very happy that we are going to get more and more medical students, locally, to know more about that subspecialty and become more interested. It’s a chance to have more sleep medicine specialists. We don’t have enough in the country,” says Sayed.

“In many sleep centers people wait for weeks and months either to have their sleep studies or even to have their follow-up appointment,” he says. “I think we need to encourage more and more students to know about it.”

Lisa Spear is associate editor of Sleep Review.