November 19, 2015

Early EVENTS influence outcomes: You have power to make good things happen!

Few people realize how important early EVENTS are in determining the eventual outcome of a work disruption due to a health problem, particularly the most common kinds of conditions:   low back pain and other kinds of muscle and joint sprains and strains, depression, and anxiety.

Let’s call this a poor outcome:  a failed medical recovery that results in over-impairment and excessive “disability” accompanied by work absence and loss of employment that could have been avoided.  And let’s call this a good outcome:  the fullest possible medical recovery with the least possible physical or mental impairment and the smallest possible impact on the rhythm of everyday life, including minimal lost work time and continued employment.   Do you agree?

Here’s the exciting “so what” about this news that EVENTS influence outcomes:  all three of the professionals who respond to an individual CAN influence what some of those EVENTS are going to be.  Those three professionals are:  the treating doctor, the workplace supervisor, and the benefit claims handler.  This news means that each of them actually has some POWER to nudge things in a good or bad direction!!

See below for a brief description of why early events are so important, and how the experience of  people destined for lucky or unlucky outcomes differs.  In fact, these ideas are some of the main concepts of the work disability prevention model.  (NOTE:  The scientific articles that support the  evidence-based concepts are briefly noted in parentheses.  Their full literature citations appear in the list of References in our report that recommends the establishment of a nationwide Health & Work Service.)

When a working person’s life is disrupted by a new or changed illness or injury, the first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period.  The likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval (Bowling 2000; Cornelius et al. 2011; Franklin et al. 2013; Loisel and Anema 2013; Nicholas et al. 2011; Shaw et al. 2013; Waddell and  Burton  2004; Waddell,  Burton,  and  Main  2001).  It  is  the  optimal  window  of  opportunity  to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns (Shaw et al. 2013)  as  well  as  by coordinating  the  medical,  functional  restoration,  and  occupational  aspects  of  the situation in a coordinated fashion (Wickizer et al. 2011).

The  way  the  episode  unfolds  over  time  in  all  dimensions — biological,  psychological,  social,  and economic — can have a big impact on the outcome. Events that occur can either mitigate or aggravate existing  risk  factors  in  the  situation,  leading  to  better  or  worse  outcomes.  There  are  usually  many opportunities to actively influence the course of events immediately after onset of a health problem (and  many  fewer  opportunities  later  on),  but  today  there  are  few  resources  devoted  to  finding  and exercising these opportunities.  Most of the current attempts to steer situations to a better outcome are made long after the best opportunities have passed by.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months (DeWitt 1995; Franklin et al. 2013; Hashemi et al. 1997; Johnson and Fry 2002; Loisel and Anema 2013; Turner et  al.  2008)  although  some  data  shows  it  ending  by  6  months  (Rumack  1987;  Waddell  and  Burton 2004). A modest set of simple services —that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach — can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population (Burton et al. 2013; Hill et al. 2010; Iles, Wyatt, and Pransky 2012; Kendall et al. 2009; Lagerveld et al. 2012; Loisel and Anema  2013;  McLaren,  Reville,  and  Seabury  2010;  Mitchell  2012;  Nicholas  et  al.  2011;  Shaw  et  al. 2013; Sullivan et al. 2005; Turner et al. 2008; Waddell and Burton 2004; Wickizer et al. 2011).

This new approach will allow people to avoid the kind of adverse secondary consequences of medical conditions that they too often experience today (Institute of Medicine 2001; Dartmouth 2008; Franklin and  Mueller  2015).  Those  consequences  are  not  usually  obvious  until  months  or  years  later,  after unfortunate things have happened. The unlucky ones have received sub-optimal health care, been left with undertreated or iatrogenic impairment, become dependent on opioids, found themselves socially isolated, lost their jobs, withdrawn from the workforce, lost economic independence, and ended up on long-term disability benefits programs or SSDI in order to survive (Darlow 2011; Franklin et al. 2008; Franklin et al. 2014; Franklin and Mueller 2015; Habeck, Hunt, and VanTol 1998; Nguyen et al.)


Figuring out where the opportunity to improve outcomes actually lies will be easier if we first clarify some terms that are often used carelessly or that mean different things to various audiences.

Work Disability vs. Disability
In the world of employment and commercial insurance, the word  “disability” is carelessly used.  In this world, the correct term is often “work disability” –which means absence from or lack of work attributed to a health condition.

According to the ADA, disabilities are impairments affecting major life functions (such as work).  Having a disability need not result in work disability.  This is a core concept embodied in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Similarly, having symptoms or a diagnosis need not (and usually does not) result in work disability.

Medical Recovery vs. Functional Restoration
Medical recovery refers to the resolution (disappearance or remission) of the underlying pathological process. Functional restoration refers to reestablishing the usual rhythm of participation in everyday life including the ability to go about one’s regular daily business: performing necessary tasks and enjoyable activities at home and work, and participating fully in society. Functional restoration often accompanies medical recovery, but not always.  Even when medical recovery is not possible, restoration of function often is.   In some cases, it may require separate and specific professional attention.  Functional restoration may include rehabilitation (broadly defined), the successful use of assistive technology, adaptive equipment, and/or reasonable accommodation in the workplace.

Anticipatory  programs  that  ensure  the  right  things  happen  from  the  start  and  include  early identification of those needing extra support are the simplest and most effective way to prevent later adverse secondary consequences of these conditions. A professional needs to provide the following services throughout the immediate response period (which typically ends with stable RTW or 12 weeks post onset).  These services are not generally available today, especially to lower-wage workers and those who work for small firms:

  • oversee and champion the affected individual’s stay-at-work and return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process until it is successful.
  • conduct a quick initial assessment and planning session that considers the individual’s entire situation, screens for known risks for poor outcomes, helps the individual and/or employer make a  SAW/RTW plan and  support them  in  carrying  it  out;
  • drive towards the best outcome by:
    — expediting and coordinating external medical,  rehabilitative  and  other  kinds  of helping services, including referrals for specialized services as needed to address remediable obstacles in a variety of life domains;
    — facilitating communications among all involved parties, ensuring they get the information they need so everyone has a shared picture of the situation and the goal;
    — taking a problem-solving approach with affected individuals, treating physicians, employers, and payers.

If RTW has not occurred by the time the 12 week period has ended, that should trigger a hand-off  to another professional with broader expertise for a deeper assessment which is likely to reveal the need for a different strategy, revised goals, a new approach, or the involvement of other disciplines.

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