Category Archives: Events

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.


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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAwJFMD0hBo

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 14, 2016

Why we need a 1:1 ratio of healers to lawyers when designing reforms for “comp”

While Linda Rudolph was Medical Director of the California workers’ compensation regulatory agency in the mid-1990’s, she defined workers’ compensation as a medically-driven legal system.  I still use that definition when I give my annual lecture on work comp at the Harvard School of Public Health.   Based on my interpretation of what that succinct and elegant summary really means, I believe that any group setting out to improve the workers’ compensation system should have a roughly equal number of people at the table who were originally trained in a healing art and the law — because of the way their minds were indelibly imprinted by that training.

As you may have heard, I was among 38 workers’ compensation experts of various stripes who participated in the Workers’ Compensation Summit co-hosted by blogger Bob Wilson from workerscompensation.com and blogger Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of the Florida workers’ compensation system.

I was surprised as we went around the room introducing ourselves.  I was one of only two physicians in the room.  There were no others with healthcare professional training.  There was one person whose original training had been as a vocational counselor.  By far the largest group had had legal training, although many of them were now in other jobs — judges, legal scholars, workers’ compensation system administrators, corporate executives.

Training in both law and in medicine shapes a student’s worldview, teaches a precise vocabulary, builds a foundation of factual knowledge as well as rigorous intellectual discipline, and defines how things work in a certain part of human life.  The training also establishes a finite range of things that seem possible, and offers a particular inventory of potential solutions.  A behavioral acculturation process accompanies it, too.  The point here, though, is that the actual shape and content of those worldviews, vocabularies, knowledge bases, intellectual disciplines, possibilities and solutions — and behavioral cultures — differs in most respects between the two professions.

Earlier in life, I spent 20 years as a physician married to a lawyer.  For many reasons, it was kinda like a nice cat being married to a nice dog.  We had a primordial kind of incompatibility.  But I did get to know what made that particular dog tick pretty well.

Lawyers seem to have a predilection for solutions that involve clarifying rights, justice, entitlements, boundaries, and who is responsible to pay for what.  Lawyers are trained to advocate for their clients’ rights and interests.  Most lawyers seem to spend an awful lot of their time and energy anticipating arguments or actually arguing, fighting, and trying to win  — because the everyday grist of their vocational mill is broken promises and disputes.

As I was pondering the difference between the “head set” of medicine and law, I found a quote from an article in the May 31 Boston Globe about a 35 year old man, a published author and poet, now  graduating from Yale Law School — who at age 16 had hijacked a car at gunpoint and served 8 years in prison.   He said “The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions….. Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power.”  This quote struck me — not because he’s so amazing (which he obviously is) but because he articulated so precisely what I had predicted a lawyer would say.

Physicians and others in the healing professions have a predilection for solutions that reduce peoples’ suffering and restore the integrity of their bodies/minds.  Medicine has nothing to do with winning.  The first precept of medicine is to do no harm.  Physicians are trained to advocate for their patients’ health, to meet their immediate needs today and maximize their future well-being in the future.  The everyday grist of their vocational mill is providing comfort, relief, and reassurance to a stream of patients coming through the door with symptoms, with bodies or minds that aren’t working right, distressed and worried about the meaning of those things for their health and everyday activities (and often secretly fearing death).

In my view, a good “medically-driven legal system” for people injured at work should concern itself primarily with helping injured workers get back on their feet.  That requires paying roughly equal attention to

  1. Helping them manage any life predicament the injury has caused (reducing worry, suffering, and distress, arranging good care promptly that maximizes healing and restores function as quickly as possible, preserving daily routine, minimizing work disability and job loss or providing assistance to find a new job quickly.  The goal is to get everyday life back to normal as soon and as completely as possible.  Time spent in limbo is destructive.
  2. Minimizing their short-term financial stress as well as long-term financial loss, sorting out their rights, and dealing with disputes.

Everyone’s goal should be to expedite the activities in #1 even if there are difficulties in #2, instead of allowing #2 to delay #1 as is common today.

 


June 17, 2016

Free webinar on getting off opioids next week — offered by CIRPD

See below for the topics and schedule for a series of (free) summertime webinars sponsored by  the Canadian Institute for Relief of Pain and Disability (CIRPD).  They’ve got some excellent and expert presenters lined up.   The first one is on a technique for reducing dependence on opioid medications — on Wednesday next week!

I have been on the CIRPD board for a couple of years now.  I am impressed with their focus on educating professionals alongside patients as well as their efforts to build a web portal to expedite translation of evidence from academic researchers to real world practitioners.

I am certain there OUGHT to be an analogous organization here in the USA.  One reason why CIRPD manages to survive is that it has kept getting annual grants from the British Columbia government’s “gaming” revenue.  Seems like a good use of that money!

See much more at www.cirpd.org — where you can also register for one of the webinars shown below.  Here’s an idea:  Put the ones you like on your calendar now!
——————————————–
Upcoming (free) CIRPD Webinars

Targeting Pain and Prescription Opioid Misuse with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE)
Eric Garland, Ph.D., LCSW – Associate Dean for Research and Associate Professor in the University of Utah College of Social Work
Dr. Eric Garland will discuss his research on the clinical benefits and neurobiological mechanisms of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, a novel therapy designed to target chronic pain and prevent opioid-related problems.
DATE:            June 22, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

Keeping the Boom(ers) in the Labour Market: Can Existing Workplace Policies and Accommodations make a Difference?
Monique Gignac, PhD – Associate Scientific Director and a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Work & Health
Dr. Gignac will discuss current research on understanding the interplay between accommodation and chronic diseases so employers can better retain older workers.
DATE:            June 8, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

The Be Well at Work Program: Managing Depression, Absenteeism, and Presenteeism in the Workplace
Debra Lerner MS, PhD – Director, Program on Health, Work and Productivity, Tufts Medical Center
Dr. Debra Lerner will discuss current research on how depression in the workplace affects levels of absenteeism and presenteeism. She will also present strategies for working with employees with depression.
DATE:            June 15, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

The Difference Gender and Sex Make to Work Disability Outcomes
Mieke Koehoorn, PhD – Professor and Head, Occupational and Environmental Health Division, University of British Columbia
Gender and sex can have an impact on the outcomes of workplace disability. Dr. Mieke Koehoorn will discuss recent research on how gender and sex affect disability outcomes and will provide some practical steps for handling the differences.
DATE:            July 13, 2016 – 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT

Exercise Management for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – The Evidence and Current Approaches
Suzanne Broadbent PhD – Senior Lecturer, Clinical Exercise Physiology, Southern Cross University
Dr. Broadbent will provide an over view of exercise management for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and discuss current research describing the most effective types of exercise practices to use.
DATE:            August 23, 2016 – 4:00pm PDT / 7:00pm EDT

Pain-related Distress: Recognition and Appropriate Interventions
Tamar Pincus PhD – Professor in Health Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London
Many people who live with chronic pain report that they also suffer from low mood, irritability, and withdrawal from activities and relationships. Dr. Tamar Pincus will discuss new research which helps distinguish whether these behaviours are based in depression or pain-related distress.
DATE:            September 20, 2016 – 8:30am PDT / 11:00am EDT / 4:30pm UK


June 14, 2016

Take an important step BEFORE the sausage making starts …….

Do you know the Bible story about wise King Solomon and his response to the two mothers fighting over two babies — a living one and a dead one?   Each claimed the living one was hers and the dead baby belonged to the other.  King Solomon offered to cut the living baby in half and give each mother a fair share. The real mother was revealed when she said she would give up her claim to the baby rather than have it die.

The efforts being made now to “modernize” workers’ compensation and other large scale disability benefits programs may end up dividing the live baby in half by becoming prematurely dominated by the sausage-making and log-rolling among powerful vested interests on all sides.  In particular, past efforts at “reform” in workers’ comp have been feeding frenzies for those who live off system inefficiencies and inequities.  The result is the continuing sacrifice of the metaphorical living baby — the well-being and long-term quality of life of the individuals these systems are intended to protect, and the economic and social health of our society as a whole (as represented by the taxpayers).

By their nature in a pluralistic and democratic society, legislative and regulatory reform ARE sausage-making and log-rolling activities.  As a regulator commented at last month’s Workers’ Comp Summit, good government must “account for the multiplicity of interests”.  That said, we have a better shot at creating a more satisfactory system IF we give the sausage-makers a North Star to guide their efforts.   As they write legislative language, they need to be using a written “spec sheet” of requirements that the solution must meet — a list of the major design principles or performance specifications that a twenty-first century replacement would need to satisfy.  A credible group needs to come up with a draft System Design and Performance Specifications document which could then be circulated for comment and revision in community meetings and industry groups all around the country.

The people invited to create the spec sheet should be well suited for this kind of socially responsible foundation-laying project:  thoughtful, expert in the matters at hand, with real world and front line experience, each respected in their own sector, able to see things from a broad perspective — and preferably NOT elected officers or designated representatives of organizations.  The participants must feel completely free to advocate for what they think is best for the two parties most vulnerable to system dysfunction (the affected individuals and society as a whole).  The people sitting at the table must not allow themselves to be swayed by the vested interests of their own livelihood, profession, enterprise, trade association, or industry — but should be worldly wise enough to acknowledge the power that those interests have to distort and defeat naive solutions.

As an example of the KIND of document that might result, see this preliminary draft for a set of design principles for the nation’s healthcare system.  This list was developed in the late 2000’s — before Obamacare was passed and signed into law.   It expands and refines an initial set of ideas that bubbled up from a small group of people in different walks of life in my “social set.”

As citizens and taxpayers, we were uncomfortable at the country’s lack of a core document articulating widely-accepted values, principles or expected outcomes against which to judge the merit of various details in the legislative proposals.  We also felt that a document with core principles like these could later be used to determine whether a law is creating the desired changes, and to guide later amendments and regulatory changes.   After creating this document, I envisioned groups around the country holding community meetings, to either consider and modify it or come up with their own versions.

Widespread engagement in dialogue at the community level — a “from the ground up” development of the US population’s vision of what a well-functioning health system would look like — would have given the USA a coherent values-based and outcomes-based population health policy at long last.  The results being produced by the ACA today could be compared with that vision/policy in order to judge whether Obamacare has moved us towards or away from that vision, and to identify places where changes need to be made.  (And you do realize that the US still doesn’t have a population heatlh policy, right?)

Similarly, while there is wide acknowledgement that modernization of our nation’s workers’ compensation system is needed, why don’t we take this tack and start building a vision of how a good system SHOULD operate, and the results it SHOULD produce?


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.)


CLARIFYING KEY TERMS

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 30, 2015

Turning private tragedies into a public concern: job loss after injury or illness

Do you realize that NO professional feels responsible when a working person loses his or her job because of a health problem — neither the doctor, nor the employer, nor the person handling the claim for healthcare, disability, or workers’ compensation benefits?  At most, the professionals may say “that’s a shame” assuming they are even aware it’s happened.  Job loss is often invisible; the person just drops off the radar.  The government insists that employers track workplace injuries and illnesses, hospitalizations and fatalities — but no-one is tracking job loss.  Among the public purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act is promoting employment of people with disabilities.  The millions of workers now silently disappearing from the workforce due to newly-acquired disabilities deserve more visibility — and more help.

An estimated 2.5 million people leave the workforce each year for health reasons, most frequently due to things like low back pain and other common musculoskeletal conditions, as well as the most common mood disorders of depression and anxiety.  And none of the professionals who are called on to respond when those individuals start having difficulty are being held accountable for making an active effort to help them keep their jobs. Obviously, some people really can’t continue to work (for example those who have a terminal illness or have suffered an incapacitating injury).  But some of those lost jobs COULD have been averted if any of those three professionals had devoted more of their skill and discretionary effort to finding a better solution.

In my opinion, this hole in our social fabric through which people with newly-acquired disabilities are falling has been invisible until now — and is unacceptable.

To put this in perspective, as Western societies have evolved over the centuries, other kinds of private tragedies have become public concerns.   Do you realize that until roughly the 19th century, no one felt responsible when a pregnant woman died in childbirth, or her newborn infant did — which was very common?  “That’s a shame,” people said.  It was each family’s private tragedy.   Today,  several professions, many hospitals, and whole departments within public health agencies in every single state focus on keeping pregnant women healthy, providing prenatal care, assuring a safe childbirth, and proper care of newborns.  Maternal and infant mortality rates are now considered basic indicators of the health of a country’s entire population  — and the adequacy of its public health / health care systems.  In the developed countries, maternal and infant deaths are 50 to a 100 times lower than the rates in still-developing countries.  Here is data from the CIA’s World Factbook.

Pic of Mat Infant Mortality rates 2015-10-30

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a comparable table showing job loss rates for the countries?  What do you think it would show?   I bet the developing countries are doing less well by comparison — because their social safety nets tend to be weaker.  And I doubt workers that in the US are a 100-fold better off.   I’ve heard that European countries make it much harder to “throw away” unwanted workers.  It is not only important for workers and their families to stay employed.  Every time a worker loses his or her footing in the world of work, our society takes a DOUBLE hit:  we lose an economic contributor AND at the same time we gain another person dependent on taxpayer funded benefits.

I’ve been part of a two-year effort to start thinking seriously about ways to reduce job loss due to illness and injury among U.S. workers while serving as a member of the US Department of Labor’s Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work (SAW/RTW) Policy Collaborative. This year three of us (economists (David StapletonKevin Hollenbeck, and I) were asked to develop policy papers, each on a specific aspect of the issue.

My task was to think about how to establish accountability for job loss among the professionals who have the best opportunity to influence the outcome.  I felt so LUCKY to be PAID to take the time to explore this topic in depth — it was really fun to put my “thinkatorium” into high gear.  Stimulating conversations with more than 30 experts in various fields and sectors of society helped shape my thinking (thank you all — their names are listed in the report).  The final product is three main recommendations and a set of specific suggestions for action — how to accomplish the recommendations.  I hope you will read my paper to see where this line of inquiry leads you.  I bet you will be surprised — because I was.

On October 22, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy (CSDP) hosted a policy forum to introduce the three policy papers and all of their recommendations. You can view the 90 minute video of the event here.  It includes some very good questions from the audience and subsequent dialogue. All three policy papers are available on Mathematica’s website.

Please consider joining me in transforming these 2.4 million hidden and all-too-private tragedies per year into a public challenge for change.

And before you go — did you notice that the data I cited on maternal and child death rates came from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s INFORMATION WEBSITE???  Who knew?  I just stumbled on it.

Photo announcing policy rec - video of event 2015-10-29


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 22, 2015

Star rankings for doctors who deliver better outcomes in workers’ comp

I was in the audience for a presentation on “outcomes based networks” in workers’ compensation while at the SIIA conference this week (Self-Insurance Institute of America) in Washington DC.   The two presenters were from Sedgwick (which I believe is now by far the largest workers’ comp claims administrator [claims payer] in the country — servicing mostly self-insured employers) and from Multi-Plan (a huge PPO).

The bottom line is that Sedgwick is now putting INDIVIDUAL treating physicians into ranks, from 5 stars (most preferred) all the way down to 1 star (least preferred) .  HOWEVER, many physicians cannot be ranked because the “n” (number of cases for which the payers have data) is too small to analyze with any statistical confidence at all.  The star ratings are NOT generally shared with the physicians — but I bet doctors who know the rankings exist can ask pointed questions about where they stand.

The two speakers have been deeply involved in developing the data sets and metrics to assess physician performance.  They have also been responsible for packaging that information so people who need to know where to send patients can quickly find the best available nearby doctors.  (I am an informed listener on this topic, having developed a physician “report card” myself with less sophisticated data tools in the late 1990’s.)

The presentations were fascinating, both because of what the speakers DID say, as well as what they DIDN’T say.  The four most important things they DID say (if I heard correctly) were that:
•    Sedgwick’s clients, claims adjusters, and case managers who are making referrals / recommending physicians to care for work-related injuries now have access to a user-friendly website that automatically lists doctors within certain geographies IN ORDER OF STAR RANKING (though the ranking itself is not displayed).  Reality check:  Some locations simply don’t HAVE any super-top-ranked providers.
•    Employers who are able to get most or all of their employees to 4 or 5 star doctors have DRAMATICALLY BETTER RESULTS in terms of medical/functional outcomes, disability duration and cost, including higher patient satisfaction/lower litigation rates.   These employers are seeing roughly 15-20% improvement in the parameters of interest.  I heard later that these are mostly California results.
•    The highly ranked doctors are happy to get the referrals and have NOT been asking to be compensated better when it has been confirmed that they are the best.  The highly ranked doctors also tend to be the ones who do a lot of work comp — so they are attuned to the critical issues that need to be managed.  Personally, I think those who DO deliver the best results SHOULD thrive and prosper as a result — not just get more patient volume.  MANY doctors already feel maxed out!
•    A nice endorsement for occupational medicine specialists in general.  The speakers consider “occ docs” as “primary treating” providers (along with urgent care, internists and family practitioners) rather than as specialists (e.g. orthopedists, pain management).  In general, occ docs rank high.  The speakers said it was because of our specialty’s philosophy of care that puts high priority on employing evidence-based techniques for medical treatment and preventing needless work disability in order to optimize patient outcomes and control total episode costs. They said it’s not a sure shot — there are SOME duds in our specialty — but both speakers agreed that as a rule, occ med physicians are among the best.  (They only mentioned occ med because I specifically asked the question –and that was because I suspected what the answer would be –and wanted the audience to hear it!)

The three most important things I DIDN’T hear the speakers say were:
•    How OFTEN the employers/adjusters/case managers are ACTUALLY choosing docs based on rankings.
•    What FRACTION of all doctors in any given geography they actually are ABLE to rank.  (In other words, how many cases have Sedgwick’s employer clients actually been SENDING to each doctor.).  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s less than 25% of the doctors.  I suspect the unranked doctors’ names are NOT presented first.
•    How many cases the doctor has to have treated before ranking them makes sense or is fair. Very few payers are going to have the volume of information available that Sedgwick and Multi-Plan do.  Buyer beware:  TPAs and networks that want to keep up with the Joneses may CLAIM to have ranked providers — but it takes a large number of cases AND considerable statistical sophistication to do this ranking stuff accurately and fairly.   One catastrophic injury could make even a great physician look bad without appropriate adjustment.   The speakers both acknowledged that getting accurate data and analyzing it in a fair manner has been a big challenge, and that their capabilities for doing so have improved rapidly over the last 5 years.

This IS the wave of the future.  Physicians who discover they are low ranked should find out why — and do their level best not to be defensive, but rather learn and improve from the experience.  Buyers of /payers for services absolutely do have the right — if not the duty — to select suppliers based on the best information at hand about who will meet their legitimate needs.   And physicians are suppliers in their eyes.

Sedgwick got started building their Outcomes Based Networks after participating in a Cornerstone Conversation co-hosted by the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards & Commissions (IAIABC).  This was a four-way conversation among a small group of key stakeholders:  ACOEM leaders, large payers, large employers, and state regulators on what needs to happen in order to improve access to high quality healthcare and improve outcomes for injured workers, and to reduce unnecessary costs for employers and payers.  A joint project undertaken by ACOEM and IAIABC as a result of that meeting was the production of a Guide to High Value Physician Services in Workers’ Compensation.  You may find the observations and suggestions made in this succinct document helpful — whether you are a chooser, a recommender, a payer or a physician-supplier of medical care services.