by Renee Diiulio
Set on helping the public sleep better, Michael Breus, PhD, DABSM, has taken his vision to the airwaves, reaching the nation through television, radio, and social media.
Michael Breus, PhD, DABSM, a clinical psychologist board certified in clinical sleep disorders, spends a portion of his time in the traditional practice of sleep medicine (1 or 2 days a week) and the rest of his time developing and promoting education and products designed to help people sleep. He has become a bit of a celebrity, within not just the world of sleep but also the world of media, where he has developed a nationwide impact on sleep awareness.
“I love to educate people about sleep because I think it’s one of the most important topics. It’s critical to overall health and wellness—as critical as nutrition—and I don’t think it has the spotlight it should. So I do what I can to bring it forward into the spotlight,” Breus says.
Although he has no typical week, Breus may find himself supervising research on consumer-based products that range from pillows and mattresses to nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals; writing books, blogs, and posts for a variety of sites, including the Huffington Post; providing sleep advice as an expert source for sites, such as WebMD, and shows, such as The Doctor Oz Show; completing research for his newsletter, “Your Sleep. Your Health. Your Life”; and doing interviews to promote new research.
In addition to his work with The Doctor Oz Show, Breus has appeared on CNN, Oprah, The View, The Doctors, and Sirius XM Radio. He has written two books, including the Amazon Top 100 Best Seller Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. He developed a PBS television special, Good Night with The Sleep Doctor, that continues to air nationwide and had a show titled As Recommended by The Sleep Doctor on the Home Shopping Network (HSN).
Wherever he appears, Breus and his team stick to consistent messaging so that patients and consumers can be properly educated; and whatever the message is, Breus makes sure there is scientific data to support it. “You can’t just give your endorsement for a particular product without true scientific research and maintain your medical and ethical credibility,” Breus says.
It’s possible Breus has lost a few hours of sleep himself educating the general population about the topic, but he approaches sleep with the realism of a busy man. He may advise you turn the television off, but he’s not going to insist you take it out of the bedroom.
FALLING INTO SLEEP
Breus was first introduced to sleep medicine during his clinical internship at The University of Mississippi Medical Center. He was working on his PhD in clinical psychology and interested in how biological and psychological aspects of health were associated as well as how that dovetailed with sports psychology.
Before he completed his sports psychology rotation, however, he was asked to do one in sleep disorders, primarily because his undergraduate research with lie detectors meant he knew how to operate the equipment in the sleep lab. It took 2 days for him to fall in love with sleep medicine.
“You change people’s lives almost instantly. It’s amazing to recognize a sleep disorder, make one small change, and change a patient’s entire life,” Breus says. So Breus took his medical boards in sleep disorders and was certified.
His approach to patient care is holistic. “I don’t just necessarily look for the symptomatology identified in ICD-9 but ask questions about everything from the sleep environment to emotional psychology, particularly with diagnoses like insomnia,” Breus says.
OTHER THAN APNEA
Because of the psychological component, Breus works more frequently with insomnia patients rather than those with sleep apnea. “Right now, a tremendous amount of sleep medicine focuses on easily diagnosable and treatable sleep disorders, the biggest one being sleep apnea, but there are clearly more people suffering from insomnia than any other disorder,” Breus says.
Fewer doctors specialize in insomnia because, in part, it is so difficult to treat and, in part, reimbursement is inadequate. Insomnia is billed with a mental health code. “These patients take longer to treat, and the physician gets paid half as much money, so you can treat only so many in a schedule and still maintain a healthy practice,” Breus says.
By increasing awareness about these challenges, Breus hopes to influence legislation that eventually provides fair reimbursement for sleep medicine diagnosis and treatment. Education has long been a goal of his.
Myra Brown, president of the MBrown Group, LLC, in Atlanta, and Breus’ brand manager, recalls an early conversation with Breus 7 years ago. “His real passion was educating people about sleep because he really believed that people often felt like they failed at sleep. It’s kind of unfortunate because, sooner or later, everybody sleeps, but very few people think they do it well. Dr Breus thinks that everybody could sleep better than they do if they are just empowered with a little bit of information,” Brown says.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
During that early conversation, Brown suggested Breus create a brand as the best strategy to achieve his vision, but he was not yet ready to take on such an endeavor—and it is a huge endeavor, from both a time and investment perspective. And it often involves hiring others.
“The schedule can be grueling, and it takes a lot of time, effort, money, and dedication. And Dr Breus has to work the hardest on the team,” Brown says.
Breus handles it because he is driven by his vision. “You have to really believe very strongly in your message because there’s a tremendous amount of trust involved, and it’s the trust by the media and the consumer,” Brown says.
Keeping that in mind, one should be cautious when building a team and selecting others to deliver that message. “It’s always very difficult to give your message over to someone else,” Brown says.
But eventually Breus was ready, and 2 years after their initial conversation, he reached out to Brown. The two developed a business and marketing plan that was designed to educate the public about sleep and led to the creation of The Sleep Doctor brand. It provided a base for the awareness initiative and has become a huge success.
THE SLEEP DOCTOR AWAKES
Working with Brown, Breus designed “pillars” for the brand or “the components everybody [on the team] has to talk about,” Brown says. Consistency is held across all media outlets, and nothing is discussed without scientific data to back it (one of the strongest pillars).
In many instances, messages also need to be distilled, whether to fit a specific topic, angle, outlet, or time frame. “The information presented for a 3-minute segment on Doctor Oz will be different from that for a blog interview and different from that for an interview with Woman’s World,” Breus says.
For each, he will focus on takeaway points. “As a sleep expert, you have to determine how to take complicated information and bring it to an audience in language so that a reader or viewer can use it in their lives. So even though there may be some great research on circadian rhythms in mice models, the expert has to decide how to make that relatable to the consumer,” Breus says.
Conflicting opportunities are decided by impact, a task most often handled by Breus’ publicist Danielle Burch at Sarah Hall Productions Inc, New York. Data used can include circulation figures or ratings results.
Sometimes, however, the results can be surprising. “Some things you didn’t think would be effective are, and others—that you expected to be more effective—aren’t,” Breus says. As an example, Breus notes that an appearance on Oprah spiked book sales for only a week, while his involvement with sites, such as WebMD and the Huffington Post, have reached a tremendous number of people over a much longer period of time.
Of course, there is the unique challenge of responding to requests for personalized information in either venue. “Many times during a television interview, one can be asked to diagnose a patient’s problem, live, on air. This is, of course, inappropriate. But since so many patients have never seen a sleep specialist, they often use the limited time they have to try to get as much personal information as possible,” Breus says.
Breus maneuvers around these issues well, in part because he invested in training and in part because he is a natural. He recalls his first media appearance, which stemmed from his work with WebMD.
“In the first 1 to 2 years I worked with WebMD, I answered roughly 5,000 to 6,000 questions. So when a producer from The Jane Pauley Show called them asking for a sleep expert, they produced my name,” Breus says. Despite it being his first time in front of the camera, Pauley called Breus a natural and suggested he pursue further such opportunities. He eventually did with the help of the Hall company.
“So there is an individual on the other end of the telephone calling media outlets to find out what stories they’re working on and how can she be of help to insert my vision into all of these different outlets,” Breus says.
Brown points out that Breus selected Sarah Hall Productions Inc to work with because the company focused on people rather than products. “Danielle is good at understanding the message, and then, when she talks to media outlets, she’s very good at speaking because she talks about the message,” Brown says.
Breus also recognized the value of social media early on and brought on a social media manager to handle his Facebook and Twitter presence. “Social media is about education. So Dr Breus uses the outlet to share his message of why sleep is important and how to get a better night’s sleep,” says Julia Rosien, owner of SocialNorth, Ontario, Canada, and Breus’ social media manager.
Looking at the big picture, Breus is presented as an expert on sleep that people can go to for information online. But again, it is imperative to maintain a generalist approach, referring people to local experts and physicians for specific personal problems. “There are many ways to talk without giving medical advice, and you can create scripts for common or difficult questions,” Rosien says.
In this regard, it can be helpful for physicians to participate in social media. “If people search for a local physician online, there is a big SEO [search engine optimization] component. So a physician who is active online will appear earlier in the search results,” Rosien says.
Those who do it well are not even marketing, but rather building relationships with patients before they even come through the door. But it takes commitment. “You need to make a long-term commitment of at least a year because social media can take a long time to develop,” Rosien says.
Rosien, who has a background in sleep products, thinks Breus is a social media pioneer for physicians and, again, a natural. “He has a welcoming attitude, and people feel the warmth when they start talking. When they write on his pages, they feel as if he is speaking to them,” Rosien says.
It is another way Breus has helped to effect change in people’s lives. “The more sleep doctors can get in the media and give researched, credible information, the more informed people can be and the more likely they are to seek treatment,” Breus says.
Sleep specialists everywhere have an opportunity to educate every time a patient walks through the door. “But media has the unique opportunity to educate thousands or millions of people very quickly,” Breus says.
Breus plans to continue his efforts to educate through the media as well as fulfill his many other roles. He will move forward researching products, pairing companies with researchers if data are lacking. He is developing a line of his own products that include a mattress, sheets, pillows, and mattress protectors as well as an app. He is writing a new book that will explore the more fantastical aspects of sleep. And he plans to expand the foundation he established to focus on sleep disorders in children.
The work continues to be rewarding. “It’s not nearly as glamorous to be on TV as people think it is, but when you’re done, it’s amazing the number of people that you can reach. And we get incredible e-mails and mail from people who say I saw you on Doctor Oz or I read your blog or I read you on Huffington Post, and it was great because you helped me,” Brown says.
And so Breus will keep up his schedule, practicing and promoting sleep medicine through whatever outlets are available in an effort to help people sleep better. Because, eventually, everybody sleeps, and they should do it well.
Renee Diiulio is a freelance writer based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].