The Story of a Sleep Scientist [Audio Transcript]
By: Katherine Ellen Foley

Katherine Ellen Foley (KEF): In a busy world, our sleep is essential to our health and well-being. Sound sleep can be hard to come by, and it’s important for doctors to be able to work with all of their patients to ensure they’re getting rest they need to be healthy. However, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, until recently there has not been a focus on addressing sleep health disparities among different communities. Dr. Giradin Jean-Louis, a behavioral sleep scientist at New York University, is rectifying this problem: He studies disruption in sleep patterns in minorities, and the best ways to reach and serve them.

Giradin Jean Louis: There’s a little island called Haiti. I was born there, and I was raised there to the age of 17 when I migrated to New York. When I came here, I thought I was going to be an engineer. In fact I started — I was doing the prerequisites for my engineering courses — and then this great advisor of mine said to me, “Hey, you’ve gotta take some electives.” We though the books, we looked and looked, and the only thing that was available was something called “Sleep, lab techniques and dreams.” That’s what did it.

I’m more of a behavioral sleep scientist. Our focus is primarily minority communities. What the Academy has done so far has been very generic … most of the information seems to be applicable to only whites. How do we know about this? We’ve conducted a number of focus groups on minorities, Latinos and Blacks.

When folks wearing a white coat say, “I’d like you to get a sleep test done” — or anything, such as prostate cancer screening — they don’t agree to participate. If the barber tells them, “Oh, I just did my screening [and] I think you should go too,” they’re gonna go. If the pastor says, “I think all of my parishioners, all my congregates, should go get breast exams or prostate exams, or screening, rather,” guess what happens? They are more likely to go. Why? Credibility.

The guy or the gal in the white coat I’ve only met you a couple of times. I don’t know anything about you; you don’t know anything about me. Maybe I’ll go. In fact, sometimes they politely say they will go. But they don’t really go. Pastors say they’ll go, the barbers say they’ll go, or the beauty stylist tells the ladies, “I gotta go get tested”? There’s credibility. You’ve been doing my hair for 15 years; if you think I should go, you know, I’ll go. So we’re using some of these venues because this is where they feel, “I control the information flow; you’re coming into my turf. And also, if you care enough to leave your comfort zone to here, I appreciate that.”

So we’re developing our own brochures, our own materials for Latinos and Blacks. Additionally, we have a project now where we’re developing a website to provide information that is tailored culturally and linguistically to Latinos and Blacks because that’s what they told us. They said, in fact, if the information, they felt, was relatable to them — if they felt they were at risk — they’ll actually get a sleep test done.

To dispense with health disparities or to help reach health equity, we have determined that not only do we have to appreciate what the barriers are, but also develop programs to overcome them. The way we treat sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes, HIV to some degree … lots of major breakthroughs have come out of this, we now know, to make sure we go into certain communities, make sure they’re comfortable talking about certain things, and therefore they take their medications to do better.

We’ve also come to appreciate that when we train minority investigators — when they compare white and black scientists or community scientists or PhDs — we found that when minorities are trained in that program, they were more likely to practice in communities where it looked like people where they came from.

So then our effort is twofold: Conduct health equity research to reduce disparities, but also to train minatory investigators to do this kind of work.

KEF: This audio was produced by me, Katherine Foley, with help from Lydia Chain, Ivan Oransky, Shannon Hall and JoAnna Klein. Lauren Young conducted and recorded this interview. The music is by Podington Bear.