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.”

3 thoughts on “Two faulty beliefs about IMEs & impartial physicians

  1. Jim Butler

    Texas has an interesting system. They randomly select trained Designated doctors to answer all questions: whether from the injured worker, his lawyer, treating doc, the insurance company or the state. I have become a believer in the sysytem

    Reply
  2. Gabor Lantos

    Jennifer,

    In my experience with employers and insurers, very often the IME is not about the actual treatment,
    but rather that the PCP simply is not providing reliable/realistic information re prognosis and R&L’s
    having no knowledge about the workplace nor the particulars of the STD/LTD contracts, the claimant’s transferable skills/ETE(experience/training/education), HR/LR/union matters. etc. They too frequently confuse impairment with disability, relying on his/her patient as the only source of (unreliable) information. PCP’s frequently advocate not only for medical matters, but also inappropriately and mistakenly “advocate” for social, financial, legal reasons; issues which are outside their realm of expertise… for which there is no medical solution, and serve only to spin the disability spiral.

    Reply
  3. Les Kertay

    Well written, Jennifer, and your point on the 50:50 myth is well taken. Having worked as a corporate medical director for disability insurers, I can affirm your analysis. Most claims do not go for independent assessment, whether by file review or IME; they are simply paid. Of those that do go out, if they always come back critical of the treating provider, then it could be that the evaluating physicians aren’t given appropriate attention, or it could be that the claims staff is being too conservative, and never sending something about which they are unsure. The independent examiner/evaluator’s role isn’t to be a rubber stamp, and it isn’t to bend over backward to support the claimant: their job is to be fair and base opinions on evidence. Some do that better than others – teaching physicians and psychologists how to do that well is my passion.

    Your point on advocacy is also really important. Often we forget that advocating for health involves keeping people productive, including at work, whenever possible. I know I’m preaching to the choir; I’m just adding my voice to the chorus.

    Reply

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