What is a Sleep Doctor?

Sleep affects a vast and variety of different health and medical disorders. As such, sleep doctors have a variety of different training and degrees. While all sleep professionals have a common goal – making you feel better! – their expertise in sleep can differ and sometimes it can be confusing to figure out what a “sleep doctor” is. Here are some tips in navigating through the sleep world.

First, determine what kind of degree your doctor has. Physicians typically have an MD or DO degree. “MD” stands for “doctor of medicine,” meaning they have had allopathic medical training. Within the United States, these doctors have attended medical schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). Physicians with a DO degree have attended osteopathic medical schools. While there are differences in philosophies behind these types of schools, MDs and DOs who practice sleep medicine have completed their college degree, graduated from their respective medical schools, have completed residency training, and have completed a fellowship (or specialized) training in sleep medicine. All sleep physicians should have board certification specifically in sleep medicine.

Sleep physicians (MDs or DOs) should be board-certified in sleep medicine via the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). The ABMS has a variety of medical background specialties, so your sleep physician may be a pulmonologist (lung doctor), neurologist (brain doctor), internist (internal medicine doctor), psychiatrist (mental health doctor), pediatrician (kid doctor), or ENT (ear/nose/throat surgeon) specialist. While these areas differ in perspective and training, the sleep board certification ensures that the basic knowledge base across physician specialities are equivalent. For example, your sleep physician who is a neurologist can treat sleep apnea, and the sleep physician who is a pulmonary doctor can treat restless leg syndrome.

There are also sleep psychologists, who typically have a PhD or PsyD. These degrees are post-doctorate (or graduate) degrees typically in some field of psychology. Sleep psychologists do not take the ABMS boards, but there is a certification pathway in Behavioral Sleep Medicine (BSM) through the American Board of Sleep Medicine (ABSM). Sleep psychologists evaluate for behavioral modification of sleep, so they typically do not (or cannot) prescribe medication.

You may also encounter nurse practitioners (APN, or NP) or physician assistants (PA) within sleep clinics. Many nurse practitioners have a master’s degree to allow them to practice independently, but more recently, nurse practitioners are obtaining PhDs as well. So your “doctor” may be a nurse practitioner with a PhD, but they are able to prescribe medication. When they do so, they usually are supposed to discuss your treatment in conjunction with a physician. Similarly, PA specialists can also practice independently (in conjunction with a physician). APNs and PAs do not have board certification in either sleep medicine (via the ABMS) or certification in behavioral sleep medicine.

Regardless of varying degrees or background training, you should feel comfortable with your doctor, understand what is being evaluated and how, and be able to discuss treatment options (both medical and behavioral options) together.

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