- Mitchell Northam The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dr. Jeffrey Durmer doesn’t think it was a coincidence.
He’s a sleep performance physician and neurologist who works with the Atlanta Falcons and says that many players on the team started taking sleep and sleep therapy more seriously this past season. Durmer thinks that played a part in the Dirty Birds appearing in their first Super Bowl since 1999.
“That’s an easy one to see. Sleep is a major factor in recovery from injuries,” Durmer said. “If you play in a (football) game, you’re going to get injured somewhere ... Injury is not something you can avoid, but what you can do is recover more quickly if you’re sleeping better.”
This past season, Durmer saw a lot better recovery times from players who were sleeping well or using therapy for sleep apnea or insomnia.
Durmer, a 52-year-old doctor based in Johns Creek, is also the chief medical officer for FusionHealth, which is focused on providing sleep health solutions that improve quality of life, employee engagement and performance. The Falcons happen to be one of FusionHealth’s many clients.
“We handle anything sleep-related,” said Durmer, who holds an MD and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re finding things like insomnia, jet lag, restless legs syndrome and lots of different sleep issues that we can solve for people.”
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The goal of FusionHealth is to connect with companies who employ large numbers of people and provide them with solutions for sleep problems.
To solve sleep problems, FusionHealth has sort of fused technology, science, medicine and business applications together into SleepCharge, an app that can be used by the company’s clients. It tracks sleep, provides information for FusionHealth’s sleep-help professionals and allows them to treat patients remotely.
“It brings the best of neuroscience and biology directly to people in a very consumer-friendly way,” said Durmer, who also works as an adjunct professor at Georgia State University. “It can get people to a sleep test if they need one, and do it in their home environment. We can bring you therapy and show you how to use it.”
Employees at places like Southern Company, another one of FusionHealth’s clients, can use FusionHealth’s resources with little cost to them.
Essentially, for companies that use FusionHealth, sleep care is now lumped in with all the other benefits an employee would get, like vision or dental care, Durmer said.
Many of the companies FusionHealth works with are those who employ construction workers and truck drivers, but the program is applicable to all people.
"There’s no getting around that sleep is like the No. 1 most important thing," Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan told ESPN. "Every study that you look at, every time you try to do any research on recovery or training or whatever, any kind of performance-enhancing stuff, it all comes down to sleep.”
Durmer has been in Georgia since 2003 and his four kids, three of which are collegiate swimmers, grew up in Decatur. Durmer’s passion for studying sleep started while he was a college athlete too, while he was a rower at Trinity College.
“I realized how much sleep impacted our team’s performance and I was really interested in the mind-body connection of exercise, physiology, sleep and diet, and what it did to your body,” he said.
So Durmer began studying neuroscience. Eventually, he was recruited to Emory University to work with groups studying sleep.
FusionHealth came about when Durmer and an engineer were doing research in Iceland on sleep disorders and treating restless legs syndrome. They decided there was a real opportunity to use technology to get to large populations of people who weren’t being treated for disorders.
“Many people who have sleep apnea don’t know they have it,” Durmer said. “We decided that we could do more by building a company outside of the academic institution rather than keep teaching and researching.”
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Durmer said it seemed like the Falcons started taking sleep more seriously when Dan Quinn took over as head coach. Quinn used to coach under Pete Carroll, who taught his players that sleep was a weapon.
“(Football players) need to sleep even more than everyone else because of their energy output throughout the season,” Durmer said. “As they take it more and more seriously, they get better and better.”