Category Archives: Causes of Poor Outcomes

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!

July 28, 2016

Video on tools & techniques to aid recovery & RTW

You may like watching the video of a group discussion on Tools to Aid Recovery and Return to Work that was presented (and recorded) via Blab yesterday.  It was a stimulating exchange of ideas about both tools AND techniques with my colleagues Les Kertay, PhD and Chris Brigham, MD — as we each sat in our own offices.  Each of us were visible in our own little boxes on the screen.

The session was aimed at professionals in any discipline who want to hone their skills at working with individuals who are having trouble getting back on their feet.  It was sponsored by R3 Continuum and hosted by John Cloonan, their Marketing Director.

The video is now available on You Tube.  There are a few static-y and jumpy spots in the video, but I believe you will find the 60 minute conversation is worth your time.
Here’s the link to the YouTube version:

Afterwards I talked to John Cloonan about Blab.  Apparently it has a built-in link to Twitter, so Twitter users can watch the live Blab video using Twitter’s Periscope capabilities.  Comments from Twitter users are fed to the Blab screen and are visible to presenters, which enables audience participation.  In addition, John was able to simultaneously link the live video to Facebook.   So while we were talking among ourselves, an unknown number of people were watching our discussion via R3 Continuum’s website, Facebook AND Twitter.   If you go any of those places, you can still find it.

Wow, talk about the ability to extend one’s reach and connect with many audiences!   Looks like John Cloonan (as a marketing guy who wants to disseminate messages far and wide) is drawn to Blab because it is possible to attach such a big social media megaphone to it!

As is typical with new technology, there are more challenges than are obvious at first glance.  For example, Blab works much better with a high-speed wired connection.  Some users may find their firewall is blocking it and have to figure out how to unblock it, etc. etc.  I had to restart my silly computer to get the microphone to work.  So having a “tech rehearsal” ahead of time was absolutely essential.

Les, Chris and I are all members of the Praxis Partners Consortium, by the way.

July 21, 2016

Pay attention to burden of treatment – and its impact

Think about it: Becoming a patient can sometimes be like getting three new (and unwanted) part-time jobs:

(1) arranger/consumer of professional healthcare services,
(2) manager of self-care and activity adaptation regimens, and
(3) manager of administrative issues (benefits, purchasing, and billing).

The tasks involved in those additional jobs can sometimes be so time-consuming they interfere with other important responsibilities (like going to work). Some tasks may be beyond the patient’s capability and so don’t get done right – or done at all.

The POINT here is that Burden of Treatment is a significant but under-acknowledged and thus unmanaged issue.  Anyone “in the business”  for a while has had a vague sense that this is a practical concern with major impact.  But to date we’ve just been haphazardly addressing it.

All stakeholders in health-related work disruptions do need to stay alert to how much time and effort patients/claimants/employees are spending on treatment and care regimens of various kinds (and their attendant administrative/financial issues).  We also need to assess how well they are managing that burden.  Once we DO start to pay more attention to this issue and see how the impact varies from one treatment regimen to another, we will see that we have an opportunity to work on REDUCING BoT.

Figuring out how to systematically classify and document BoT is a necessary early step to increase awareness and opportunities for active management. There may well be a vast literature on this topic — but I am unaware of it. The particular study whose abstract appears below reminded me that this issues exists.  It explores whether/how to use the terminology in the ICF to document BoT. (ICF is the International Classification of Function, the lesser known companion to the ICD – International Classification of Disease.)  And I don’t know whether the ICF addresses the burden of administrative issues. Do you?

TAKEAWAY MESSAGE:   Let’s all think more about what a high burden of treatment means for our patients/claimants/employees, and what we can do to reduce it.

GONCALVES AV, Jacome CI, Demain SH, Hunt KJ, et al.
Burden of treatment in the light of the international classification of functioning, disability and health: a “best fit” framework synthesis.
Disabil Rehabil. 2016 Jul 3:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]


PURPOSE: This systematic literature review aimed to (1) summarize and explain the concept of Burden of Treatment (BoT) using the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) terminology, and (2) inform the development of a future Comprehensive ICF Core Set for BoT.

METHOD: Searches on EMbase, Medline, CINAHL and PsycINFO were conducted. Only qualitative studies were considered for inclusion. The screening and data extraction stages were followed by a “Best-fit” framework synthesis and content analysis, using the established ICF linking rules. Screening, data extraction, quality appraisal and data analysis were performed by two independent researchers.

RESULTS: Seventeen studies were included in this review. The “Best-fit” framework synthesis generated 179 subthemes which identified that BoT impacts negatively on body functions and structures, restricts valued activities and participation and influences contextual factors through life roles, self-identify and relationships. The identified subthemes were linked to 77 ICF categories.

CONCLUSIONS: This study is part of the preparatory phase of a Comprehensive ICF Core Set for BoT and our findings will inform the further needed studies on this phase. The use of ICF terminology to describe BoT provides an accessible route for understanding this complex concept, which is pivotal for rethinking clinical practice. Implications for rehabilitation Health professionals applying the ICF should consider the negative impact of interventions on patient’s life roles and self-identity, body functions and structures and on valued activities and participation. Health professionals who may be concerned about the treatment burden being experienced by their patients can now use the ICF terminology to discuss this with the multidisciplinary team. Poor adherence to rehabilitation programs may be explained by an increased BoT. This phenomenon can now be mapped to the ICF, and coded using a framework well known by multidisciplinary teams.

June 28, 2016

Reduce ill-considered surgeries by using shared medical-decision making

Something called “shared medical decision-making” increases patient satisfaction while reducing utilization of elective procedures that are invasive, risky, of questionable value — and often high cost.   But it is rarely used today outside large health plans.

Do you know how shared medical decision-making (SMDM) differs from “informed consent”?  I didn’t until I attended a presentation by Ben Moulton from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation. In brief, informed consent is a legal process that is supposed to protect patients and promote patient autonomy.  You’re probably familiar with it.  You get a form to read a minute before the doctor walks in to talk at you for a few minutes about risks and benefits of your up-coming test, procedure or surgery.  Then you sign the form after barely glancing at all the legalese.  In contrast, SMDM is a structured process by which a patient and a clinician share information with each other in a two-way exploratory conversation that prepares the patient to make a truly informed decision.  The INSTANT I learned about SMDM, I became an ardent fan.

(Please forgive the acronyms.  We have been doing a project with the military.  They constantly use acronyms in the interest of brevity.  I now find myself making an acronym out of EVERY multi-syllabic or multi-word term.  Here’s the latest one I learned:  BLUF which means “bottom line up front”.  In other words, instead of beating around the bush, the point of the memo or report is right here at the start!)

So here’s the BLUF:  Since the superiority of SMDM is now well-established among healthcare researchers and legal scholars, and many articles have documented its benefits to patients, to healthcare professionals, and in some cases to health payers, why isn’t it in widespread use every day and everywhere?   As soon as I heard SMDM existed, I began to wonder about what’s getting in the way of constant use?   I bet a combination of conflict of interest and pesky not-so-little logistical details like the lack of vendors, undeveloped operational mechanisms, and lack of fair payment for effort are the main reasons why.  And of course, a preference for costs later rather than costs today.  We gotta find a way around those obstacles!


Ten years ago, a landmark article appeared that distinguished between informed consent and SMDM — then made a persuasive case for the latter.  Here’s the full citation:  King, Jaime S. and Moulton, Benjamin, Rethinking Informed Consent: The Case for Shared Medical Decision-Making. American Journal of Law and Medicine, Vol. 32, pp. 429-501, 2006.

First the authors described the two prevailing types of legal definitions for informed consent.   They wrote: “Currently, the states are almost evenly split between two types of standards for informed consent – the physician-based standard, effective in 25 states, and the patient-based standard, effective in 23 states and the District of Columbia.  Physician-based standards generally require physicians to inform a patient of the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment in the same manner that a ‘reasonably prudent practitioner’ in the field would.  On the other hand, patient-based standards hold physicians responsible for providing patients with all information on the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment that a ‘reasonable patient’ would attach significance to in making a treatment decision.”

The crux of the problem:   About one third of the time, the prevailing standard of care does not require the physician to do the treatment  (for example, the surgery is not the only treatment available, or is not required to save the patient’s life).  In that third of cases, in which the treatment or procedure is referred to as “elective”,  the intended outcome of the surgery is basically improved quality of life.  Thus, the decision whether to go ahead with the treatment really should depend largely on the values and preferences of the patient.  However, patients vary widely in how much information they want, their appetite for risk, their tolerance for various side effects and possible poor outcomes, and their confidence in their own decision-making ability.   Many of them will not feel prepared to make a good decision no matter how much information they get;  they want guidance or an out and out recommendation from their doctor.  Without knowing the patient’s  preferences and values, physicians are not able to give advice about treatment decisions tailored to the patient’s personal situation — and may inappropriately bias the discussion of alternative plans.

Then the authors defined SMDM:   “a process in which the physician shares with the patient all relevant risk and benefit information on all treatment alternatives and the patient shares with the physician all relevant personal information that might make one treatment or side effect more or less tolerable than others. Then, both parties use this information to come to a mutual medical decision.”  They also said SMDM must occur BEFORE the patient can give truly informed consent.

Here’s another problem:  Many physicians have trouble talking in lay language;  they tend to use big words and medical jargon.  And because medical visits are stressful, patients have trouble remembering the things the doctor tells them.   Moreover, most physicians do not have comparative factual data at hand about likelihood of success and specific side effects for the various treatment alternatives.  This has led to the development of decision aids – pamphlets, booklets and videos for patients that summarize information about procedures and treatments, their likelihood of success, what it is like to live with potential side effects and poor outcomes, and so on, all written in simple everyday language. Both the Foundation and its partner Healthwise have produced many of them.

Finally, the authors asserted that despite the “bureaucratic headaches, the enormous expenditure of financial and human resources, and the need for state by state adoption of new informed consent laws, the long-term benefits of shared decision-making and the use of evidence based decision aids to promote patient understanding of medical information to arrive at informed medical decision making far outweigh the costs for both patients and physicians.”


Conflict of interest:
Some (or many) surgeons and interventionists of various kinds earn their living by delivering expensive services – and usually have convinced themselves believe those services are the best thing for the patient.   They often work for healthcare delivery organizations that want to drive revenue up – not down.   The whole team has a vested interest in making sure the patient says “yes” and understandably has less commitment to spending valuable time helping patients say “no thank you” to the operation or the treatment.

My question is:  How can we get around this obstacle?   Why can’t managed care companies or health/disability/workers’ comp payers find qualified third party vendors who can engage patients in shared medical decision-making conversations when the treating physician can’t – or doesn’t want to?   The company Health Dialog does that – but last time I talked with them, they are only set up for bulk sales to healthplans.    I haven’t yet run across an organization that will do onesie and twosie shared medical decision conversations on request.   In workers’ compensation and disability benefits programs, that option is the only way this will fly.

Scarcity and cost of materials, logistics, and lack of delivery mechanisms:
1.    Materials to educate and prepare the patient for shared medical decision-making are available only for a limited number of procedures.  It takes time and expertise to prepare them, and since they are based on the latest scientific evidence, they must constantly be updated.  For example, when I looked last, the Foundation had no package for spine fusion surgery, though they did have them for laminectomy and spine MRI.
2.    Medical offices that buy the materials used to educate and prepare the patient for a shared medical decision-making conversation can’t bill for the cost of the materials.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under a similar-appearing code, it often won’t be paid.
3.    Physicians who conduct “real” shared decision-making conversations in their office aren’t paid for the time.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under another code, it often won’t be paid.
4.    Medical delivery organizations that have especially trained staff on hand to conduct these conversations can’t bill for the time they would spend doing it.   Non-physicians can’t bill health payers for the time they spent on these conversations.  There is no billing code expressly designed for this service, and if the provider bills under another CPT code, it usually won’t be paid.


Many studies have shown increased patient satisfaction when SMDM occurs.  In addition, Group Health of Oregon reduced healthcare costs by 40% by putting SMDM in place throughout their group practice HMO.  (They didn’t have to worry about getting paid for doing it because Group Health is a prepaid health plan that employs its own physicians.  Increasing patient satisfaction strengthens their business, and any dollars they save stay in house)

Those of us who contract with vendors and operate provider payment mechanisms really ought to get ourselves in gear to remove the barriers to widespread adoption of SMDM.   Drs. Ian Hargreaves and Victor Montori from the Mayo Clinic summarized the situation in an article in Health Affairs entitled “Shared Decision Making: The Need For Patient-Clinician Conversation, Not Just Information,” They wrote: “The patient and clinician must jointly create a course of action that is best for the individual patient and his or her family. The larger need in evidence-informed shared decision making is for a patient-clinician interaction that offers conversation, not just information, and care, not just choice.”

May 11, 2016

Best & worst states for people with disabilities who want to work

Have you heard of RespectAbility?  When I went to their website, I found a COOL CHART showing some HOT NUMBERS:  the best and worst states for people with disabilities who want to work.

Before you look at the chart (I’ve pasted it below):
•    Guess which state has the highest employment rate for people with disabilities – 50.1%?   Do you think it’s a blue or a red state?
•    Guess which state has the lowest rate – 25.6%?   Is it blue or red?
•    Answer:  Almost all of the best AND the worst states for people with disabilities with regard to employment are in the red zone of the USA.

So, what else might be the reason for the differences between states?   Hmmmmmmmm. Is it the underlying health of the state’s economy?  I went to Mr. Google to find a ranked list of state economies.  This list on Business Insider was the first one I found.  Yay, here’s the answer, I thought (for a moment).   The WORST state for people with disabilities is the LAST state in the ranking – the state with the weakest economy over all (West Virginia).

BUT then I noticed that two other states among the bottom 10 of Business Insider’s list of state economies are in RespectAbility’s the TOP FIVE for employment of people with disabilities:  North Dakota and Wyoming.    And at the other end, of the 10 states that Business Insider ranked most economically healthy, only 1 was also in RespectAbility’s top group for people with disabilities (South Dakota).

I started to wonder whether Business Insider’s list was the “right” one, and found three other lists, here, here, and here — all of which purported to describe the health of state economies.  Each one has a VERY DIFFERENT RANKING of the states!!   The difference seems to be the method they used:   the underlying data sources and the formula used to calculate the results.

So I said uncle.  As an economic babe-in-the-woods who is unable to sort through this stuff, I have given up my extremely short amateur quest to understand WHY some states are better places to be if you have a disability and want to work!   For now, it is what it is, to use the jargon of today.

CLICK ON the table from RespectAbility pasted below and check out the numbers.  Then go to the full article on the RespectAbility website to read their analysis of why the numbers look the way they do – and what it all means.  And while you’re there, RespectAbility has also asked the current candidates for President of the USA to answer questions about their position on people with disabilities.  Their answers were NOT all the same!

Table-Best and worst states for disabled employment

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.

October 26, 2015

Medical “red herrings” lead to over-treatment & leave patients suffering

When I give a presentation, my goal is to give a gift to the listeners — some new information, perspective, or insight they might not have had before.  I spend time beforehand, imagining how they see the topic now, what they might be thinking, and how I should structure my talk to take them from “here” to “there.”

It’s very gratifying when they send signals that they “got it.”   The funnest [sic] part about public speaking is seeing people’s eyes light up or heads nod as I speak, or having them come up all excited to talk to me afterwards, or when they send an email — or when they write about what they heard.  It’s particularly graifying when the article a reporter writes matches up with what I hoped they would notice.  All those things were true last week when Keith Rosenblum (a senior risk consultant from Lockton), Dr. David Ross (a neurologist and developer of the NP3 diagnostic testing method) and I gave a presentation at the SIIA (Self-Insurance Institute of America) conference last week.  Our audience was a small group of professionals who work for companies (employers) that are self-insured for workers’ compensation.  Our topic was “How Medical Red Herrings Drive Poor Outcomes and Big Losses— and What You Can Do to Stop Them” .

And in particular, here’s a shout-out to reporter Robert Teachout (wow, a rhyme!) for really GETTING what we were trying to get across in our session.   Robert’s article appeared last Friday in HR Compliance Expert.

Dr. Ross taught the audience about the latest definition from pain experts on the essential nature of pain:  it is an EXPERIENCE put together by the brain after it analyzes and interprets many things.  Pain is NOT a sensation in the body.  He also described why and how “objective findings” on MRI often lead doctors to over-diagnose structural spine problems and provide over-aggressive treatments — because the actual source of the pain lies in soft tissues or the brain itself.

My job in the session was to point out this obvious but often overlooked fact:  doing surgery on the wrong problem is not going to make the patient’s pain and distress go away.  And I introduced the audience to the idea that there are other very common causes of prolonged back pain, distress and disability (summarized as biopsychosocioeconomic (BPSE – bipsee) factors) that may mimic or worsen noxious sensations coming from the spine.  Screening for and dealing with easy-to-treat BPSE factors BEFORE resorting to aggressive testing and treatment makes more sense than waiting until AFTER you’ve subjected the patient to those potentially harmful things.  That’s because MRIs, opioids, injections, and surgeries increase the patient’s certainty that their problem is in their spine while at the same time failing to relieve their pain AND causing side-effects and additional problems.    Keith recommended that employers / claim organizations start screening for the presence of a variety of BPSE factors — and get them addressed — BEFORE aggressive, potentially destructive and definitely expensive treatment even begins.  Screening methods can include simple things like questionnaires, or fancy things like the NP3 testing methods.

In addition, even when surgery IS needed, it makes sense to screen for complicating BPSE issues and address them BEFORE surgery as well as during recuperation — because having clear indications for surgery and being a good surgical candidate doesn’t mean a person is free of the kind of BPSE issues that reduce the likelihood of a good recovery.

I sent Robert, the reporter, a compliment via email that read:  “Robert, you did a remarkable job of capturing the salient facts, important implications, and key take home messages from our session.”  I hope you will read his article — and that you’ll send him a note if you found it informative or helpful

October 9, 2015

A Health & Work Service could prevent or reduce impairment/disability


There is definitely an opportunity to make a positive difference BIG ENOUGH to make the expense and effort of developing, launching and delivering a nationwide community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) worth it — in my opinion.   (Our proposal for establishing the HWS was among 12 ideas selected for development as part of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget‘s SSDI Solutions Initiative on Capitol Hill.)  There are two main reasons why this opportunity exists.

First reason:  Years of research have shown that some of the unfortunate secondary consequences of illness and injury — certain kinds of impairment and work disability — CAN sometimes be prevented or reduced.  This is particularly true in people with the most common chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK) especially low back pain, and the most common mental disorders (CMD) like depression and anxiety.  And research has also shown that intervening early in the unfolding of an injury or illness episode can have a very favorable impact on the long-term outcome.

Second reason:  Millions of workers in America fall through the cracks in our society because they have no access to services or expertise that might protect them against job loss after injury or illness, or they experience service failures.  Many of them work for employers that do not offer health or disability insurance, or that are excluded from the requirement to buy workers’ compensation insurance.  Many work for small companies that are exempted from the Family Medical Leave Act which protects jobs for 12 weeks when employees have health problems, or the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  In addition, there are many people who are the victims of neglect or poor decision-making by those with authority over some aspect of their situation.  Sub-par employees headed for termination exist among the administrative staff, professionals, supervisors, and managers in every organization, including every medical care facility, workplace, and benefits claims administration organization.  Before leaving, each of these sub-par employees has probably had an impact on hundreds of vulnerable workers.

Therefore, it is not correct to assume that all of the people who are now on SSDI due to these common health problems had the worst (most severe) form of their particular MSK or CMD from a biological/pathological perspective, and that nothing could have prevented their entry into SSDI.  While undoubtedly true in many cases, it is also likely that a sizable number of them lost their footing in the world of work and ended up on SSDI because of events that occurred in response to their health condition—not the condition itself. Their lives fell apart due to a cascade of adverse secondary consequences of the initial medical problem, and after a time SSDI became the best option for survival.

Remediable or Avoidable Reasons for Poor Outcomes

At the moment when the common health problems of this subgroup of SSDI recipients first started, these people would often have looked very similar to other patients with the same diagnosis and objective clinical findings—but who then experienced good recoveries.  This is because the factors that predict poor outcomes (serious impairment and prolonged work disability) as a consequence of MSK, especially low back pain, are not tightly related to either the specific diagnosis or the extent of the pathology. Although less research has been done on factors that predict poor outcomes in CMD, and diagnosis does play a more significant role, there are other important non-medical factors.

Some of the factors that predict poor outcomes are immutable (such as age, past medical history, work history, and geographic location). But other factors are potentially remediable such as elapsed time out of work, uncertainty and distrust due to lack of communication or information, uncoordinated or inappropriate medical care and advice, low expectations of recovery, excessive vigilance, catastrophic thinking, false beliefs, fear of movement, self-limitation, perceived injustice, and lack of employer support. Today, those who handle these situations do not typically look for any of these remediable problems and address them.  And none of the professionals involved has been trained to feel responsible for driving the situation forwards towards a good outcome .

The standard medical care process is simply inadequate to help people in these situations avoid poor life outcomes. What is needed is coordinated activity during a fleeting opportunity to address and resolve a set of pivotal issues (both medical and non-medical) around the time the condition starts interfering with work—issues that will set the situation off onto the right or wrong path.

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which 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. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that 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.

In summary, the way a health-related episode that disrupts work 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.

If you’d like the references for the research mentioned above, get a copy of our full report when it is published by the CFRB later this month (electronically) or in January (in print).

Bottom line:   If you agree that the USA needs a community-focused Health & Work Service, contact your Congressional representative, tell them you like our proposal and recommend that it be included in the 2016 SSDI reform legislation package.  Or even better yet, take a grass-roots approach.  Team up with other like-minded people to see if a local charity or foundation will fund your efforts start a HWS in your own community!




August 12, 2015

Who will address working people’s reasonable concerns when illness or injury disrupt their lives?

What do working people wonder and worry about when their lives (and work) have just been disrupted by a new illness, injury, or a change in a chronic condition?

While creating a course to train doctors how to meet their patient’s needs, we realized we had to know what those needs were.  It seemed obvious that patients would want to know what is wrong with them and what kind of medical care they need.  But beyond those things, we came up with a list of predictable and totally reasonable issues:

How long am I going to be laid up (out of commission)?
How long do I have to take it easy?
When I can go back to doing my usual stuff?
In the meanwhile, what can I still do? What shouldn’t I do?
What can I do to speed my recovery?
If I can’t work, how will we pay our bills next month?
When will life be back to normal? …..if ever?
What does this mean about me?   My future?
What is this going to do to my livelihood?  What will this do to us financially?
Who will help me?  Who can I trust?  Who has my best interests at heart?

I often show this list when I am speaking to groups about how to improve outcomes for people with common health conditions like back pain.  It always rings true with the audience.  After one presentation, an influential executive (in a wheelchair with quadriplegia) told me that she had had all of those concerns immediately upon awakening after her accident.

Here’s my question:   How are people getting these questions and concerns answered — when and by whom?  The standard design of a medical visit (memorized by all physicians during our medical training) DOES NOT include a time for doing it.  There is no sub-heading in our report format called:  Patient Education,  Instruction, and Guidance.  If it is happening, it is spotty at best.

So if most doctors are not answering these questions, who is?   Which of the other professionals who are responsible for responding to life & work disruption in working people IS going to address them?   Unless one of these “experts” does so, the people will have to come up with their own answers.  Yet how many are prepared to do that?   They will come up with their own best guesses (which may be wacky) or may turn to their family, friends, co-worker, neighbor, union steward, or a lawyer for answers (who may or may not give them a bum steer).

What does this mean for you?  If you are committed to better service (and/or want to avoid the trouble caused by bad advice), figure out a way to meet people’s totally reasonable needs for information and advice.   If you are a treating clinician, consider making a revision to your standard visit protocol and report templates by adding that missing section:  Patient Education, Instruction & Guidance.

Another simple idea for healthcare providers, employers or insurers is to create a standard operating procedure to mail out or hand out a brochure.  The 60 Summits Project developed a fact sheet for employees whose health conditions have just started to disrupt their work — and a fact sheet for supervisors on how to manage the situation in the workplace..  Feel free to use these sheets as is, or remove the 60 Summits logo and revise them to suit yourself.  But please do SOMETHING!


August 7, 2015

Who should be accountable for NEEDLESS job loss due to medical conditions?

Who do you think should be held accountable when workers needlessly lose their jobs because a newly-acquired or changed health condition or disability?

Right now, none of the professional participants who play front-line roles in the stay-at-work/return-to-work process feels a responsibility to prevent unnecessary job loss.  Doctors, employers, insurance companies, lawyers and so on simply think it’s a shame when it happens — if they are even aware of it.  Unnecessary job loss is being viewed as a private tragedy rather than a sentinel indicator of service and system failure.  A lot more sunshine is needed to illuminate this dark corner.


Even though OSHA ensures that employers record the number of work-related injuries, lost work-days and deaths, there is no requirement that they record job loss.  Why isn’t it being tracked?   It will almost always be a much worse consequence than the injury itself.   Job loss, especially in someone who was previously healthy but now has some degree of impairment, can be DEVASTATING.   Few people are prepared to deal with this double- barreled challenge.   For the unlucky ones, this means losing their footing in the world of work forever.

We do not even KNOW how many people lose their jobs as the result of work-related injuries much less personal health conditions — and how many fail to find new jobs. I personally don’t think it matters what the cause of the health condition is.

These days, more than a HALF of the people entering the Social Security Disability Insurance program are doing so because of adverse secondary consequences of common health conditions like back pain, joint pain, anxiety, and depression.  But notice this:  there are literally MILLIONS of people who keep working DESPITE back pain, joint pain, anxiety and depression.  These conditions should NOT be forcing people into a bleak future of on-going worklessness, especially because unemployment and poverty will WORSEN their health and well-being — and that of their families.

Needless job loss can occur because of decisions that doctors and employers make as well as decisions made by workers, their lawyers, and insurance companies. Anyone who COULD have actively supported a worker in staying at work but DIDN’T plays a part in unnecessary job loss.  Doctors may thoughtlessly select treatments that worsen instead of improve function, or impose work restrictions that “over-limit” someone who COULD actually perform their job.  Employers may refuse to make temporary adjustments that WOULD permit recovery “on the job” — and as a result workers sit home and begin to believe they really are “too disabled to work”.   Employers can refuse to engage in a real problem-solving discussion with workers that WOULD have let them come back to work with a very minor modification.  Employers can neglect to ask for help from a return-to-work expert who COULD have told them about a $200 piece of equipment or work process alteration that WOULD have made it possible for the worker to keep doing her regular job.  Insurers COULD routinely (instead of occasionally) make career counseling and job finding services available to workers who appear headed for job loss or have already been terminated.  Etc. Etc.

So, who DO you think should be held accountable for job loss in those situations?  You and I as taxpayers are going to pay benefits for the rest of these people’s lives if they end up on SSDI because the right things didn’t happen.  Less than 1% of SSDI beneficiaries ever come back off the rolls.

Here’s a place to see and comment on my DRAFT recommendations for what the government can do to create a lot more visibility for unnecessary job loss due to acquired health conditions and disabilities.  You can also contribute your own ideas on this matter at: