September 19, 2018

Over-dramatizing chronic pain isn’t helping much

The most recent MMWR report on the prevalence of chronic pain from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  continues today’s unfortunate trend of over-dramatizing chronic pain and feeding the frenzy that sends the message “this is horrible; medical science has gotta DO something for these poor people!”   There are simply NOT 20 million people in the USA suffering constant agony from debilitating chronic pain.  There ARE a lot of people with chronic aches and pains, and most of them are coping with it just fine, thank you.

The two crude questions that the survey asked people to answer -– and the way their answers were interpreted, especially the way they defined “high impact pain” -– makes pain look like a bigger impediment to a good life than it actually is -– for most people.  And, more importantly, I believe the list of questions failed to identify the group that most desperately needs better help.

Information about pain was collected through responses to these two questions:

  1. “In the past six months, how often did you have pain? Would you say never, some days, most days, or every day?”
  2. “Over the past six months, how often did pain limit your life or work activities? Would you say never, some days, most days, or every day?”

Chronic pain was defined as pain on most days or every day in the past 6 months. High-impact chronic pain was defined as chronic pain that limited life or work activities on most days or every day during the past 6 months

Aches and pains, both short-lived and long-lasting are an unavoidable part of everyday life. Acute pains are the result of being out and about, being active, and using the body like it is designed to be used — exercising muscles harder than usual, dropping something on your toe, tripping over a curb, or getting a sore throat or a tension headache. Chronic pains are usually the residual of various kinds of accidents, illnesses, traumatic events and other untoward events in life — including the progress of aging.

To me, that means PAIN as well as LOSS — and adapting to them — are “natural” consequences of being alive. How many people who have lived a full and eventful life have no “scars” or “tricky joints” of any kind to show for it? How many old people have you met who DON’T have any aches and pains? The question is: how do we view our pain, how do we manage it, and how have we adapted to it?

I, for example, am old. And I meet the CDC’s criteria for chronic pain, and even for “high impact” chronic pain. I have some pain in the joints of my hands and feet due to age-related osteoarthritis — with maybe some extra wear and tear on my feet due to several years on tiptoe and in toe shoes as a dancer more 50 years ago!  My fingers and toes ache virtually every day, especially when I move them a certain way or use them a lot — or I part my hair on the wrong side 🙂

The range of motion in some of my fingers and toes is limited. Sometimes a nerve gets caught on something inside my foot — which suddenly creates a searing stabbing pain – which hurts like stink. My stiff, increasingly deformed, and chronically achy finger joints have certainly affected my ability to use my hands for forceful pinching and gripping. I have also had to adjust the kind of shoes I buy, and sometimes I have to avoid walking long distances — on those days when my feet really hurt. Sometimes, the numb, burning sensation in my forefoot forces me to limp. When it gets too bad, I have to stop walking and attempt to “readjust” the position of the structures inside my foot. A successful adjustment is accompanied by a clicking sensation and a sharp searing needle-like pain, and then complete and sudden relief.

However, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken an aspirin or tylenol because of my chronic joint pain. I have not gone to a doctor about it because my discomfort is quite tolerable, the extreme pain is very occasional, and I have no need to do a lot of physically-demanding walking or gripping. And I am certainly not interested in surgery – I see little point in allowing someone to muck around in the complex structures of an old arthritic foot that is going to continue to get MORE arthritic due to natural processes.

In short, I am quite able to work around my chronic pain. I have adapted to it, and quietly and without (much) whining made adjustments in what I do and how I live. Perhaps others would not approve of my personal adaptation strategy — I’m awfully sedentary — but it is working for me. My pain is NOT dominating my life, is NOT the main focus of my attention, and is NOT sucking the joy out of my existence. In fact, I am really enjoying my life as it is.

The people whose pain IS dominating their lives, IS the main focus of their attention, and IS sucking the joy out of their existence are the ones who most desperately need help. And maybe what they need most is a re-orientation – to make LIFE the point of their life and learn techniques for how to control their own symptoms and put pain on the back burner of their brain — instead of keeping it on the front burner as a blinking red bad and pressing problem that must be solved.

So, personally, I think we should stop talking about pain and loss as though they are terrible things that shouldn’t BE — and instead make it clear that the job in front of us is to learn how to (1) adapt to and cope successfully with the unavoidable and unpleasant things that happen while we are alive, AND (2) find ways to minimize their impact on our everyday experience by focusing our energies on creating a good life anyway.

Over the last several years, I have been following the science of pain treatment and collecting tools and resources that can help people learn how to achieve a victory over their chronic pain.  Among many other techniques, acceptance and commitment therapy (or ACT) seems to be a very promising technique in this regard.  So are several other techniques that help people who are stuck living with pain give up on being angry at it or trying to “get rid” of it.  That’s because our brains are arranged so that what we pay attention to stays on the front burner.  What we resist persists.

The American Chronic Pain Association’s website has a wide array of free and low cost resources for people living with chronic pain and who want to move “from patient to person” again.   Among my favorites are the ACPA’s Ten Steps From Patient to Person and the ACPA Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Management which begins with self-directed therapies.  The ACPA also has a network of chronic pain support groups in local areas.


June 23, 2018

Don’t miss out! RETAIN grants are a big opportunity

RETAIN is a five year and $100 million Federal Grant program that state agencies must nominally lead.  However, the leadership team must be multi-stakeholder and include an organization that actually delivers hands-on medical care.  Moreover, the states will probably end up contracting for delivery of the many services by individuals or organizations in the private sector. Proposals are due in ONE MONTH – so if you’re tempted to get involved, join our list-serv now and learn what you need to do!  See more below.

RETAIN is the biggest opportunity for physicians who practice occupational medicine since the 1970’s — when NIOSH and OSHA were established. It’s also a huge opportunity for other professionals with expertise in preventing needless work disability during the early phase of the stay-at-work/return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process:  the first few weeks and months of an injury/illness episode.

RETAIN requires states to get involved VERY EARLY in new injury and illness episodes among workers they haven’t had on their radar — and arrange provision of several kinds of services with which these agencies have had little/no familiarity. Most of the state agencies that received the RFP (and must lead RETAIN in their state) have been confused and caught flat-footed by it. They really need professionals with expertise at the interface between healthcare and the workplace to pitch in at several levels:

– to help NOW with project design and proposal writing
– once the project launches, to help oversee, manage and tweak the project at the top level,
– in individual cases, to deliver specific services during the first weeks and months of work interruption. (In fact, eligibility for RETAIN program services ends after 6 months of work absence.)

I’ve set up a free list-serv for everyone who is interested in the possibility of getting involved with their state’s RETAIN project. My personal goal is to help as many states as possible to recruit appropriate leadership teams and write successful bids. The project is so unusual, I don’t think there will be many. The Feds plan to accept EIGHT bids (from eight states).

JOIN US — if you’re an occ doc or SAW/RTW professional who is willing to wade in, introduce yourself to strangers, and then join the small team that will be developing your state’s overall project design and writing its proposal (bid) between now and July 23. Once you join the list-serv, go to our website and read the small number of earlier and information-filled emails that will get you oriented and on the right track. You’ll find links to the RFP itself along with many other resources.

To join the RETAINers list-serv, go to https://groups.io/g/RETAINers and click on JOIN THIS GROUP

NOTE: Think big.  This is the beginning of an effort to knit together some holes in our social fabric to meet the needs of people who have been falling through the cracks.  The Feds are looking for proposals that will help workers with new health problems — regardless of what caused them.  The point is to help ANY worker for whom a new health condition is causing work interruption and, if the right things fail to happen, could threaten their job. Needlessly losing one’s livelihood and ending up on SSDI is a very poor outcome of a health condition — ESPECIALLY when it didn’t need to happen.


May 22, 2018

If you’re interested in RETAIN, let ODEP know today!!

Please be a bumble bee and pass along this pollen information to your contacts at the large healthcare delivery organizations in your area/state that have an outside-facing occupational medicine department. This email is about a strategic opportunity for any occ med program that can also benefit the larger organization in which it sits – as well as hundreds or thousands of newly-injured/ill workers and their employers in their area!  It is a VERY TIME SENSITIVE opportunity, so if you know an organization to whom this might appeal, take action right away.

Any party with a potential interest in some aspect of the RETAIN demonstration projects described below needs to send an email to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in the US Department of Labor. The email address is SAW-RTW@dol.gov, and the phone number is (202) 693-7880. Tell ODEP you want to be put on the mailing list for the RFP (request for proposals) for RETAIN. It is expected to be released in the next week or so, and the deadline for responses will be short — because the money must actually be awarded by the end of September.

There is $67 million dollars in the Federal budget for RETAIN, which will be a five year project. In order for RETAIN to be successful, each state agency that is awarded the money (and will dispense it) will have to contract with – and develop a real working relationship/operational partnership with — one or more entities in the healthcare delivery sector. In Phase 1, the project budget will be roughly $2 million, and in Phase 2, roughly $18 million for each state that participates in the project. The Feds are hoping to award money to EIGHT states for Phase 1, and to FOUR states for Phase 2 – based on their success at getting themselves in position to deliver a successful demonstration.

A healthcare delivery organization you know might be an IDEAL setting for the new organization that will play a central role in the demonstration project. In Washington state, where this model was originally developed, tested, and proved successful, these new organizations are called Centers of Occupational Health & Education or COHEs. The purpose of these demonstration projects is to test a model of COHE-driven early intervention that delivers some simple and proven best practices known to help working people keep their jobs during recovery from an illness or injury that has recently disrupted their ability to work. The ultimate purpose is to reduce the number of rare and unusually poor outcomes: job loss with subsequent entry onto publicly-funded disability programs, especially Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Studies have shown that the COHE program in Washington has improved almost every possible medical, claim, and employment outcome, including reducing inflow onto permanent disability programs by more than 25%.

I hope you will see the opportunity that RETAIN offers a local healthcare delivery system: to establish their organization as a highly visible and forward-thinking leader in occupational health – one that goes beyond delivering effective medical care for work-related injuries by ALSO minimizing some specific adverse secondary consequences of injuries and illnesses that today worsen outcomes and jeopardize too many working people’s lives and livelihoods! …..iIncluding (potentially) working people with non-occupational injuries and illnesses. More employers and workers are likely to choose to use an organization that enhances its services and thus its reputation for practical usefulness in this way.

A very brief description of RETAIN appears on page 6-7 of a Pre-Announcement of Upcoming Competitive Funding Opportunities which forecasts the release of several RFP’s (requests for proposals). I’ve also pasted the text about RETAIN from the Pre-Announcement below.

I’d LOVE to see YOUR state be one of the bidders, be selected, and then execute a resoundingly successful demonstration of this intervention model – because I see the need for it so clearly and trust the solid evidence that underpins it. You may already be aware that, as part of a Capitol Hill initiative to generate ideas for protecting SSDI, I led the development of a policy proposal that served as a source for this project. I was thrilled to tears when I got the phone call telling me it had become a Federal budget item, and have been following its evolution ever since. I am well known among some key players at the Federal level, since I was a member of the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the US Department of Labor. ODEP will be administering/ overseeing the RETAIN demonstration project.

I can send you more detailed information now about the probable design of RETAIN if you’re interested. TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE if there’s ANY chance you or your colleagues or other organizations in your professional network or community might want to play. Send an email to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in the US Department of Labor at SAW-RTW@dol.gov, or call them at (202) 693-7880. Tell ODEP you want to be put on the mailing list for the RFP for the RETAIN demonstration projects.

And of course, if you’d like to toss around some ideas or I can help you in any way, give a shout.


US Department of Labor – Employment and Training Administration (ETA)
Upcoming ETA Competitive Funding Opportunities
Excerpt from pages 6-7

RETAIN Demonstration Projects ~ $63 million
Anticipated Publication: Summer 2018
Awards Made: Fall 2018

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), in collaboration with the ETA  [US Dept of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration] and the Social Security Administration plan to award approximately $55,000,000 to $63,000,000 in cooperative agreement funds to plan and conduct pilot demonstration projects called RETAIN – Retaining Employment and Talent after Injury/Illness. RETAIN demonstrations will test the impact of early intervention projects on stay-at-work/return-to-work (SAW/RTW) outcomes. Central to these projects is the early coordination of health care and employment-related supports and services to help injured or ill workers remain in the workforce. To accomplish this, successful applicants will provide services through an integrated network of partners that include close collaboration between state and/or local workforce development entities, health care systems and/or health care provider networks, and other partners as appropriate.

The RETAIN Demonstration will be structured and funded in two phases. The initial period of performance (Phase 1) will be 18 months and will include planning and start-up activities, including the launch of a small pilot demonstration no later than month nine. We expect to provide approximately $2,166,000 each to an estimated six state workforce agencies in the form of cooperative agreements for Phase 1. At the conclusion of the initial period of performance, a subset of up to three Phase 1 awardees will be competitively awarded supplemental funding of up to $18,600,000 to implement the demonstration projects during Phase 2. Awardees will be required to participate in an evaluation, which will be designed in Phase 1 and conducted during Phase 2 by an external, independent contractor.

The following organizations are eligible to apply:
• State Departments of Labor, State Workforce Development Agencies, or an equivalent entity with responsibility for labor, employment, and/or workforce development; and
• Entities described in section 166(c) of WIOA relating to Indian and Native American programs. These entities include Indian tribes, tribal organizations, Alaska Native entities, Indian-controlled organizations serving Indians, or Native Hawaiian organizations. These applicants are not required to partner with Local Workforce Development Boards (LWDBs).


January 24, 2018

Normal people in difficult health situations benefit from psychological services

Research has now shown how the liberal use of opioid medications in the post-surgical setting can lead to long-term dependency on these drugs as well as the development of persistent disabling (chronic) pain. Therefore, we must find new and better ways to manage acute and sub-acute pain (particularly post-surgical pain). Researchers are in hot pursuit of that goal. One group did a review of existing literature to identify psychological treatments that help relieve post-surgical pain– up to 12 weeks afterwards.  (See reference and link below.)

Short answer: Yes to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).  However, none of the papers that evaluated the impact of other types of psychological treatment met the authors’ inclusion criteria.  (Not meeting criteria is simply a sign the methodology or size of the studies wasn’t solid enough — the techniques may actually be effective, but a rigorous standard of proof hasn’t been met.)

Implications for ALL professionals who interact with ill and injured people: We must must MUST stop sending the message (with the way we speak and behave) that CBT and other effective psychological treatments are only for “screwed up people” with mental illness diagnoses!!!!

Background and Perspective:  Many people who are suddenly faced with UNUSUAL EVENTS have NORMAL HUMAN REACTIONS to them that lead them to make unwise decisions that lead to worse-than-necessary outcomes.  The list of normal human reactions includes things like confusion, uncertainty, worry, distrust, head-in-sand, false beliefs, and wrong-headed impulsive decisions.

A sensible and compassionate way to look at that kind of behavior is this: Some people are ill-equipped to deal well with what life serves up to them at a particular moment in time. They may simply lack the understanding, information, and effective tool/techniques that other people have. There is NOTHING WRONG with these people.  There is simply something MISSING that could make a positive difference if supplied.

I suggest we start thinking about people dealing with acute post-surgical pain (and other unfamiliar health-related life events) as people who need to be FULLY EQUIPPED or PREPARED to deal with whatever it is.  And we, as the professionals who are responding to their predicaments, are in a better position to know what it is they DO need and ensure they DO get it.

Two analogies:  The best analogy I know is prenatal care and childbirth education. There is NOTHING WRONG with a woman who hasn’t had a baby before being ignorant about pregnancy, labor, and delivery . The data is clear that prenatal care and childbirth education improve both patient experience and outcomes. We don’t stop to WONDER whether a pregnant woman “needs” that education. We KNOW she does – unless she’s already an “expert”!

Another excellent analogy is the palliative and hospice care that aid people who are preparing for their own death. Since we humans only die once, most of us are not experts at going through the wrapping up period of life.  There is NOTHING WRONG with being afraid and ignorant about what is coming and how to handle it.  Research long ago proved that the biopsychosocial approach used in palliative and hospice care improves quality of life for both patient and family. And more recently, the evidence is accumulating that hospice care actually prolongs life!

Among other things, “palliative care” involves educating patients and their caregivers — so they feel less powerless, so they put the emphasis in the right places, so they are prepared, so they have simple methods and techniques at their disposal for managing symptoms and relieving distress. All of this gives them a sense of SOME control – which is tremendously important to people dealing with a process that cannot be stopped and an inevitable end.

And we can’t assume that having a college degree means a woman knows anything about having a baby, or living with a terminal illness, or managing acute post-surgical pain.  General literacy is NOT a guarantee of health literacy – but low general literacy is pretty much a guarantee of low health literacy as well.  (A person with good health literacy is fully equipped and prepared to deal  appropriately and effectively with the health matters they are facing.)

Suggested action steps:  Decide to help people in difficult situations acquire the knowledge and skills they need to cope well with their current / future predicaments — so they get the best possible outcome.   Take a pro-active approach so that people are routinely offered assistance.  Your job is to make it clear you expect them to take advantage of and actively participate. Explain to them why and how doing this will help them.

Where there is a will, there is a way.   If you are creative, you will be able to figure out how to accomplish these things simply, at low cost, and effectively.  For example, CBT treatment often takes just a handful of face to face appointments.  Nurses and physical therapists have been successfully trained to do education and employ CBT techniques in specific situations. There are on-line versions of almost everything these days.  Use your existing staff to  provide oversight, structure, and reinforcement to ensure adherence.

1. For post-operative pain:  Since pain following surgery is entirely predictable, please start thinking about how you can ensure that patients get enough information and actual instruction in effective self-pain control techniques and methods, including psychological ones, so they too have a sense of SOME control and reduce their own suffering — during that difficult post-surgical recovery period?

2. For painful and disabling new injuries or illnesses that are disrupting jobs / livelihoods.  For working people whose ability to do their usual jobs has been affected by a painful injury or illness, please start thinking how you can ensure that they get enough useful information and practical instruction in BOTH self-care for pain and functional rehabilitation, including psychological techniques.  These tools will allow them to gain a sense of SOME control over their recovery and their future —  and thus will be more likely to have a good outcome.

Please let me know what you decide to do and how it goes.

REFERENCE AND LINK

Psychological treatments for the management of postsurgical pain: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.  Judith L Nicholls,1 Muhammad A Azam,1,2 Lindsay C Burns,1,2 Marina Englesakis,3, Ainsley M Sutherland,1 Aliza Z Weinrib,1,2 Joel Katz,1,2,4 Hance Clarke,1,4   in Patient-Related Outcome Measures, 19 January 2018 Volume 2018:9 Pages 49—64.
DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/PROM.S121251

Authors:   1Pain Research Unit, Department of Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, Toronto General Hospital, 2Department of Psychology, York University, 3Library and Information Services, University Health Network, 4Department of Anesthesia, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

ABSTRACT

Background: Inadequately managed pain is a risk factor for chronic postsurgical pain (CPSP), a growing public health challenge. Multidisciplinary pain-management programs with psychological approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based psychotherapy, have shown efficacy as treatments for chronic pain, and show promise as timely interventions in the pre/perioperative periods for the management of PSP. We reviewed the literature to identify randomized controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of these psychotherapy approaches on pain-related surgical outcomes.

Materials and methods: We searched Medline, Medline-In-Process, Embase and Embase Classic, and PsycInfo to identify studies meeting our search criteria. After title and abstract review, selected articles were rated for risk of bias.

Results: Six papers based on five trials (four back surgery, one cardiac surgery) met our inclusion criteria. Four papers employed CBT and two CBT-physiotherapy variant; no ACT or mindfulness-based studies were identified. Considerable heterogeneity was observed in the timing and delivery of psychological interventions and length of follow-up (1 week to 2–3 years). Whereas pain-intensity reporting varied widely, pain disability was reported using consistent methods across papers. The majority of papers (four of six) reported reduced pain intensity, and all relevant papers (five of five) found improvements in pain disability. General limitations included lack of large-scale data and difficulties with blinding.

Conclusion: This systematic review provides preliminary evidence that CBT-based psychological interventions reduce PSP intensity and disability. Future research should further clarify the efficacy and optimal delivery of CBT and newer psychological approaches to PSP.

Keywords: postsurgical pain, CBT, acute pain, chronic pain, chronic postsurgical pain, multidisciplinary pain management


January 5, 2018

More empathy for suffering improves patient experience

I just ran across the story of Rana Awdish and her sudden, near-fatal medical catastrophe — which put her in the critical care unit and resulted in the death of her near-term unborn baby.  She is a physician and was in specialty training for critical care medicine at the time.  The experience taught her a lot about the nature of suffering.  It also showed her that human caring and empathy is too often missing in hospital care today.  The story appeared on the NPR website yesterday, entitled Brush With Death Leads Doctor to Focus on Patient Perspective. She’s just published a book about the experience and what it taught her.  The title is In Shock.

I found an essay of hers published in the New England Journal of Medicine a year ago entitled “A View from the Edge – Creating a Culture of Caring”. In it, she provides more facts about what happened, especially the way the hospital medical staff and other employees treated her while she was in the hospital.  She clearly had intense emotional suffering at the same time her body systems were failing and she was near death.  Sadly, it is also clear that the people taking care of her did a much better job of attending to her medical problems than her human ones.

In her recounting of the facts, she highlighted specific careless and hurtful remarks that she had overheard or that her physician colleagues had said to her face.  She also highlighted some examples of tender caring others had demonstrated during her hospital stay.  In her new position as Medical Director for Care Experience at the hospital, she has used those specific examples to improve the training for all employees, from physicians to housekeeping staff.

Reading the three paragraphs below transformed the essay for me; it went from worthwhile to sublime.

“Through the training that was developed, participants learn to articulate their purpose as distinct from their job. Transporters hear how meaningful it was to me when one of their own — having seen me break down when questioned by someone in radiology — took it upon himself to warn the technicians performing various tests not to ask about the baby whose small pink wristband was still in my chart. He asked his colleagues to do the same. In an 800-bed hospital, the transporters had united to form a protective enclosure around one patient.

“Similarly, radiology technicians learn what a kindness it was that they stopped trying to awaken my exhausted husband to move him from my bedside for my portable x-ray, instead throwing a lead cover over him and letting him sleep. The power of these stories shows new employees that they have a purpose and that they are valued.

“In addition, new employees are taught to recognize different forms of suffering: avoidable and unavoidable. Our goal is to find ways to mitigate suffering by responding to the unavoidable kind with empathy and by improving our processes and procedures to avoid inflicting the avoidable kind whenever possible.”

I bet every single employee can find a way to share in a purpose like that.  From top to bottom on the hospital’s / corporation’s / our society’s pecking order of life, we have our humanity in common. We all have hearts and the innate ability to attune ourselves to notice another’s need or distress, and then to find a way to express caring for them.

There is an irony in the essay.  Most of the examples of uncaring comments came from highly trained healthcare professionals.  Most of the examples of compassionate behavior came from employees with more humble backgrounds and jobs.

Here’s another example of that, a YouTube video about Carolyn Collins, the janitor at Tucker High School.  The narrator says Carolyn has found her “true calling” — a purpose she finds deeply meaningful.  She maintains an extra “janitor’s closet” full of necessities for the 20 to 30 homeless students who attend that school.  She came up with the idea herself.  And she spends her own time and money to make sure that closet is fully stocked so those homeless kids always have access to free clothes, school supplies, snacks, and emergency food.

Notice again that this big-hearted person is a janitor.  As you listen to her talk on the video, imagine her own background, her educational level, and the size of her paycheck.  The narrator says Carolyn’s young son was killed in a home invasion.  I think Carolyn believes the person who killed her son was a desperate person.  As soon as she realized there were homeless kids attending Tucker High School, she was inspired to act.  She wants them to have what they need so they can go to school, and don’t need to steal or get in trouble — or kill someone.

I find the goodness of people heart-piercingly beautiful. And I’m the one who feels humble right now.


November 28, 2017

Avoid “one-size-fits-all” thinking in evidence-based medicine

If you feel a duty to avoid “group think” and are not yet a subscriber, I recommend you take a look at this group and their blog:  Minimally Disruptive Medicine.   Today’s posting (What are the risks and benefits of adopting guideline-driven care?)  refers to a remarkable blind spot in thinking that has just begun to be revealed:   the faulty belief that one size fits all in treatment which is based on the assumption that mathematical averages are “good enough” to PRECISELY  describe the care a whole population should receive.   And there’s a link to a VERY COOL Air Force study about “average” pilots that led to a new approach to designing cockpits for them.

Interestingly, a neuroscience researcher brought up this exact problem of variability while discussing neuroplasticity and its application to rehabilitation after strokes in a YouTube I watched last night.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE.  She uses the phrase “personalized medicine”.    The genetics-oriented medical community uses the phrase “precision medicine.”   The bottom line:  people are not biologically identical at birth – and their life experiences after birth only INCREASE that variability.

The definition of evidence-based medicine (EBM) proposed by Dr. David Sackett, one of the original gurus who articulated the concept, DID include patient values and preferences.  (See diagram pasted below and this website:   http://guides.mclibrary.duke.edu/c.php?g=158201&p=1036021.)

Note however that the Sackett definition FAILS to mention variations among patients – their biological idiosyncracies, other co-morbidities, or the context of the illness:  the patients’ life situations.   Technically, one could argue the nature and impact of those variations are all included in the box called Best Research Evidence.   BUT REALISTICALLY, as applied in practice and on the go, the “research” being brought to bear is usually mono-dimensional (the research on a particular test or treatment regimen).

A very bright and ambitious young Air Force physician told me last year that most of the fun is gone from medical practice for him due to EBM and EHRs (electronic health records).  By fun, he meant intellectual challenge and creativity.   In his world, going along with whatever the practice guideline says to do is the easy path.  There is neither encouragement nor reward for taking the extra mental step to consider whether there any reason why a patient might need something else –in addition or instead.   If he deviates from a guideline, he has to spend MANY more clicks and MUCH more  (bureaucratic) time documenting the reason for it.   He has already become cynical and is looking for an alternative to clinical practice.    Apparently the idea of mastering a “population approach” – seeing if he CAN consistently apply EBM across all of his panel of patients  – has little appeal for him.

Definitely a worthy bleeding edge of medical thought.    EBM conscientiously and consistently – but injudiciously – applied by clinical lemmings (imagine little white coats) may help many patients — but will definitely HARM some.


September 27, 2017

Job loss due to medical care calendar vs. FMLA calendar

Extending medical leave beyond the FMLA period may be an UN-reasonable accommodation under the ADAAA, according to a recent decision of the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court wrote: “ADA is an anti-discrimination statue, not a medical-leave entitlement.” And it said that since the purpose of reasonable accommodation is to allow an employee to work, which a medical leave does not do, then a leave does not accomplish the law’s purpose. However, the EEOC opposes the position of the court, and is unlikely to change its view that a long-term leave IS a reasonable accommodation when it is: (a) of specific duration, (b) requested in advance, and (c) likely to result in the employee being able to perform essential job functions upon return.

ATTENTION ALL CLINICIANS and CLAIM PROFESSIONALS: Please notice this one key fact in the case before the court. A guy exhausted his 12 weeks of FMLA leave during the “conservative care” phase of treatment for his back pain. In fact, he had his back surgery on the LAST DAY of his FMLA leave — which was protecting his job!

We really have to think more about the intersection between the calendars of “evidence-based medical care” and job loss. For most of the common musculoskeletal problems (like straightforward back, knee, shoulder and ankle pain for example), the scientific evidence says that the doctor should begin by prescribing simple things like aspirin or motrin, ice packs, physical therapy, and exercise.  Unless there are clear signs of a potentially dangerous or progressive problem, the best thing is to wait for 6 weeks and give the patient’s body time to heal itself naturally.

But maybe we should be keeping our eye on the clock, and monitoring progress more actively during that 6 weeks.  When we see recovery not proceeding as hoped, we may need to ANTICIPATE the need for an orthopedic referral, make the appointment for that 6 week mark, and cancel it if things turn out better so it’s not needed.  If not, we may burn through several weeks before the specialist can be seen.

In my experience, it is more typical to see the initial treating clinician SLOWLY notice the passage of time and realize that conservative care hasn’t cut it.  Then they start talking to the patient about a referral to a specialist for consideration for surgery.  Then, when the surgeon sees the patient, they may talk about surgery and wait for the next appointment before requesting authorization from the payer.  They usually wait for a yes before scheduling the surgery — which is often some weeks in the future.   Maybe somebody ought to do a study of the weeks of time lost in this process.

Or maybe you have a better idea? How do we make sure that people’s FMLA clock doesn’t run out because of an ADMINISTRATIVE delays on OUR end, not medical ones on THEIR end? Our goal is to have them NOT lose their jobs – and right now I’m afraid we are really not paying enough attention to that critically important and NEGATIVE result of an injury/illness.

Read more about the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision here: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/ada-not-medical-leave-entitlement-seventh-circuit-declares


January 5, 2017

Why Public-Private Collaboration Is Necessary to Prevent Work Disability

My goal now is to raise awareness about the need for concerted governmental, philanthropic, and private sector action to find better ways to support the millions of workers who lose their livelihoods each year due to injury or illness.  In many cases, this outcome could have been prevented.  And in the New World under President Trump, it will probably be more important than ever to make sure that people get the help they need to KEEP earning a living and STAY in the workforce.

You may be wondering … why work disability is a problem?  Let’s start with the basics. As a practical matter, we already know that lack of work is bad for people and for communities.  Just think about the many millions of dollars the government spends to create jobs and reduce unemployment!  But now, formal research has started confirming how harmful worklessness really is for adults — documenting the consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their marital, family, social and economic well-being.

Since that’s so obvious…. let’s agree that preserving people’s ability to function and work should be a fundamental purpose of health care services.  Successfully doing so should be seen as an especially valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.  And the failure to do so should be called a poor outcome.

Today’s reality is … that whether or not a person with an newly-acquired medical condition is able to function and work afterwards is not even counted as a health outcome!  And there are gaps in our social fabric that are actually creating job loss and work disability.

Here’s one big example of a gap: … None of the three professionals typically responding to workers who are dealing with life disruption due to injury or illness feel any responsibility for actively supporting the workers to keep their jobs or find new ones if necessary. That includes health care professionals, employers, and benefits administrators.  Occasionally, some of these professionals actually advise against work — not realizing the consequences, of course.  The workers are left to fend for themselves;  some lack the confidence or skills to do so successfully.  We need better public policy, stronger governmental efforts, and more support from the private sector in order to prevent this needless work disability.

Do you realize… that roughly half of the people now receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other prolonged disability benefits started out with very common health problems like back pain, depression, and anxiety?  And do you realize that the vast majority of people in the country who develop those same conditions don’t even take any time off work or are able to return after just a short absence?   So the people who end up on SSDI are members of a subgroup that has had unexpectedly poor outcomes — including job loss.

You might ask …why does this sub-group have such poor outcomes of conditions that normally don’t cause much work disability at all?  It’s logical to assume that these people had the most severe cases of back pain or depression and so on, but in most cases there’s actually no objective data to support that idea.  For every person now on long-term disability there are others who started out with the exact same condition, but are still working.  From the strictly medical point of view, they looked identical at the beginning.  What is different is the way the illness episode unfolded in the two groups:  what happened; how others talked to them and treated them; the decisions they made about the best way to manage this life challenge; the effectiveness of the medical treatment they received; the other kinds of support they got and the opportunities that were or weren’t available.

My personal hope is that … more employed people who are dealing with new injuries or illnesses are going to get what they need at the right time to avoid needless impairment work absence, job loss, withdrawal from the work force, and long-term reliance on disability benefits — which really means a life of poverty.  That would be good for them, for the tax payers, and for our society as a whole.

Now that these issues are in the spotlight …. It is time for policy makers, employers, healthcare providers, health and disability insurers, other service providers, and affected individuals to start talking together about solutions — and then do their part to make those things happen.

For the last three years, Mathematica‘s policy researchers Yoni Ben Shalom, David Stapleton, and I have been collaborating in the SAW/RTW Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor.  On September 13, 2016, Mathematica held a forum and webinar during which several speakers presented some actionable policy options that can improve outcomes and prevent needless work disability.

If you want to go deeper … Read my short Work Disability Prevention Manifesto by downloading it from the “Current favorites I’m Sharing” section on my blog homepage.  Or you can look at / listen to the recording of the SAW/RTW Collaborative’s September 13 forum/webinar..  Some of the ideas presented by the policy researchers came from surprising angles — and were quite creative / innovative!


October 31, 2016

Social Security Administration seeks input from YOU

I hope you will read — and respond — to this Request for Information issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  SSA is looking for input in order to decide whether to undertake a demonstration project (at the community level) for early intervention in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions – in the first few weeks (<12) after onset of work disruption.

I’m sure SSA will really pay attention to thoughtful input they get from “front line” professionals and researchers / practitioners with expertise in this field — and from patients who have personal experience with the gaps and holes in our systems today that push them towards disability and job loss.

SSA will ONLY proceed with this demonstration project idea if they think it WILL decrease job loss, workforce withdrawal, and eventual applications for SSDI — by reducing needless impairment and disability while preserving livelihoods among the workers.   At this stage, SSA is asking basic questions about the level of evidence supporting the efficacy of early intervention, what the interventions should consist of, as well as the wisdom, practicalities, and potential efficacy of such an effort.

The deadline for responses is November 18.   There is a real possibility this demonstration will actually happen.  The President’s proposed 2017 budget has $200 million allocated for demonstration projects by SSA.    Whether or not that money will ever actually be appropriated will depend on many factors, including which candidate is elected President and the composition of the Congress.

While I was scanning the RFI to find the response date, I was stunned and delighted to see my name listed in one of the 3 references cited at the end!  SSA listed the concept proposal for a Community-Focused Health & Work Service that Tom Wickizer, Kim Burton and I contributed to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  All of the proposals, including ours, are available here: SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program .Maybe our work has actually made some difference – at the very least, SSA is now interested enough to seriously explore our ideas!

Now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference — by reading and responding to SSA’s RFI.


September 26, 2016

Two faulty beliefs about IMEs & impartial physicians

Patients and their advocates tend to be skeptical about independent medical opinions.   There are legitimate reasons to be concerned.  However, I want to point out two common but faulty beliefs that create UNNECESSARY distrust in this aspect of disability benefits and workers’ compensation claim management systems.  First, despite patients’ faith in their own doctors, treating physicians as a group are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information.  Second, although justice IS even-handed, impartial physicians should not find for both sides equally.

Based on my experience leading teams on three consulting projects that audited the quality of more than 1400 reports of independent medical evaluations and file reviews I definitely share MANY other concerns about the quality of the reports, the process by which they are procured, and the physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide them.  But these two particular issues are not among them. Read on to find out why.

FACT:  As a group, treating physicians are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information

First is the incorrect belief that the treating physician is the BEST place to turn for an “independent” opinion because they are highly trained professionals who are familiar with the patient’s case.   There are two main reasons why this is incorrect:

(a) There is considerable variability in the appropriateness and effectiveness of the care delivered by practicing physicians, and patients are not in a good position to assess it.  Evaluating appropriateness and effectiveness is admittedly a difficult and imperfect process, but the best way we know to do it is through the eyes of another physician who is equally or more expert in the matter at hand — and has no axe to grind and no financial stake in the outcome:  neither a friendly colleague nor a competitor.

(b) In medical school and residency, physicians are often told they should be “patient advocates” — but that instruction may not include a definition of advocating. (True for me and many others in physician audiences when I have asked about it.)  Patient advocacy sometimes turns into doing or saying exactly what the patient wants, not what is actually in the best interest of the patients’ long term health and well-being.  (I call this being a McDoctor.)  Particularly in today’s world with fierce competition between medical groups for patients and the use of “patient satisfaction scores” in calculating physician bonuses, that is true.  The data is clear:  treating physicians provide unnecessary antibiotics, pain medications, inappropriate treatments and are even willing to even shade the truth on reports in order to keep their patients happy.

The reason why arms-length or “third party” physicians are preferred as the source of opinions is to protect patients from harm from EITHER the “first party” (treating physician) OR the “second party” (the payer — which has an OBVIOUS business interest in controlling cost).  Judges, public policy people, and I get uncomfortable when the WAY the arms length physician is SELECTED is distorted by the interests of either the first party or second party.

FACT:   Impartial physicians’ opinions should not find for both sides equally

Second is the belief that “truly” impartial physicians should come down on the side of the patient vs. insurer half the time.  Or call it 50:50 for plaintiff vs. defense.  This belief is WRONG because cases selected for review or IME have been pre-selected by claims managers and case managers.   These professionals may not be healthcare professionals but because they see thousands of cases and become very familiar with the medical landscape, they ARE often more experienced OBSERVERS of the process of care than many physicians. They learn to recognize patterns of care that fit normal patterns, and care that is unusual.  These days, they are often expected to use evidence-based guidelines to identify outlier cases.  Those who focus on specific geographical areas come to see which doctors get patients better and which ones don’t.

The VAST MAJORITY of the time, there is no need / no reason to refer a case for independent review.  The treating physician IS doing the right thing;  the diagnoses, prescribed treatment, and causation determination (if work-related) DO appear reasonable and appropriate.   If the claims managers/ case managers see no problems or have no questions, they don’t refer the case for outside review.  If it aint busted, why fix it?

So as a rule of thumb, you can assume that some feature or another in ALMOST EVERY case being sent to review has RAISED QUESTIONS in the mind of an experienced observer of the care process.  The reason WHY the case is REFERRED is because that observer has only a very superficial knowledge of medicine.  They need an adviser — an impartial and expert physician who can evaluate the clinical facts and context and then either CONFIRM that the treating physician is doing the right thing or VALIDATE the claims/case manager’s concerns.

When claims/case managers are doing a good job selecting cases for referral, we SHOULD expect that MOST of the decisions will favor the insurer / defense. The more expert the claim/case managers are, the MORE LIKELY the independent physicians will agree — because the claims/case managers are accurately detecting real problems and concerns.

(By the way, a similar ratio seems to apply in the court system.   A judge once told me that MOST defendants ARE guilty – because the prosecutors don’t want to waste their time and public funds bringing cases to trial if they think the defendant is innocent – or if they simply think they will lose.    A perfect example  of this pragmatism is the FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton.  The Director made it clear that they didn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money on a case in which they wouldn’t be able to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)

Consider this:  If you are a treating physician who FREQUENTLY ends up with your care plans rejected by claims managers and utilization review, consider the possibility that YOU stick out.  Your care patterns may be more unusual than you realize.  Your outcomes may be worse than your colleagues’.

Sadly, some physicians discredit input from independent experts in front of patients.  They THINK they are advocating for their patient — on a social justice crusade, but end up harming their patient instead — by teaching them they have been wronged, are a victim of “the system,” and a helpless pawn.  This message:

  • increases distrust, resentment and anger (which in turn worsens symptoms);
  • encourages passivity rather than problem-solving (which in turn increases the likelihood of job loss, permanent withdrawal from the workforce, and a future of poverty on disability benefits).

A former president of the Oregon Medical Association said he counsels patients this way:  “Your two most important treasures are your health and your job. And  I am here to help you protect both of them.”  Healthcare practitioners really ought to do everything they can help their patients find a successful way out of these predicaments, instead of allowing them to believe they are trapped.  The “system” is not designed to solve their life predicament for them — they may have to do it themselves.  The physicians’ care plans should consist of those treatments known to restore function and work ability most rapidly.  Physicians should encourage their patients to tell their employer they want find a way to stay productive and keep their jobs.  And if the employer won’t support them, physicians should counsel their patients to try to find a new job quickly — even if it’s temporary or they have to make a change to the kind of work they do.

Adapting to loss is a key part of recovery.   When I was treating patients, I could tell they were going to be OK when they said with pride “I’ve figured out how to work around it, and life is getting back on track.”