Category Archives: Innovations, New Things

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.


August 5, 2016

CMS announces where they will start transforming physician payment plans

If like me you’ve been kinda following Federal physician payment reform (and hoping that what is learned there there will lead to payment reform in the private sector or maybe even workers’ compensation), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made a big announcement this week.

Starting 4 months from now, (January 2017) they will be rolling out / testing a really quite revolutionary change in payments to PRIMARY physicians in 14 regions that include 11 whole states:  Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.    Other areas are the Greater Kansas City, MO area; the North Hudson Valley in New York state, the Greater Philadelphia area, and a region that includes all of Ohio plus northern Kentucky.

If you’re in any of those areas, it would behoove you to learn more about this –- and follow it as it unfolds.    CMS is estimating that 5,000 primary care practices serving an estimated 3.5 million beneficiaries could be touched by this model.   They are currently taking applications for providers in eligible practices in these areas, and don’t expect much trouble recruiting because the care-management fees can be a boon for practices.  Providers may be able to earn an additional $100,000 to $250,000 per year under the model, depending on the number of patients who participate.

The new model CPC+ (Comprehensive Primary Care Plus) has two tracks. Under track one, providers get a monthly fee for specific services in addition to the usual fee-for-service Medicare payments. But in track two, practices get an upfront monthly care-management fee coupled with reduced fee-for-service payments. The purpose of this hybrid model is to let practices provide care outside of the traditional face-to-face encounter.

Learn more here:  http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20160801/NEWS/160809989?utm_source=modernhealthcare&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20160801-NEWS-160809989&utm_campaign=financedaily


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!

BACKGROUND:

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.”

MY SIMPLISTIC ANALYSIS OF THE REASONS FOR LOW USE

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.

GOTTA FIND A WAY TO MAKE THIS WORK

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.”


June 22, 2016

Psychiatrist says we should use food to treat anxiety and depression

Dr. Drew Ramsey is a well-trained psychiatrist at Columbia in New York.  He grew up on a farm in Indiana.  When his patients weren’t getting well despite “evidence-based” psychotherapy and drugs, he starting wondering what was missing.  Then he started thinking about the link between what we eat and the health of our brains.  He figured out where all the latest nutrition research is pointing us, and started using food as part of his treatment plan for his patients — with good results.

Makes sense to me.  The brain consumes more energy than any other organ in the body. Obviously, a brain that isn’t getting what it needs in the way of nutrients will not function at its best.

So, one question to ask when we see someone who is not performing at their best mentally is:  are they eating right?   Which brings up another, much bigger question:  why are inquiries about nutrition not part of EVERY medical interview of sick people?  Why aren’t recommendations about foods that foster healing part of EVERY medical treatment plan?  Besides feeding the brain, nutrition is critical to healing injured tissues.

For years I’ve read about how doctors don’t learn nutrition.  It didn’t bother me because I DO know it.   My parents raised me to be a mother/wife and to be responsible for making sure I know how to feed my family well and keep them healthy.  I am also the main cook in our household.   But …. EVERY doctor should know what I know, and should keep it on the front burner.  And here’s the weird part.  Nutrition really ISN’T part of the medical culture.  Even though I’ve always known how important nutrition is, it hasn’t been part of what I talk about with people who are sick and need to get well.  Wow.  What a realization.  How stupid.

Dr. Ramsey has done at least two TedX talks, Brain Farmacy and Brain Food at the End of Your Fork.  He has a website, a blog, and three books.  Check it all out.  To me, his basic ideas make a lot of sense, and the nutrition stuff he’s saying is pretty solid, based on my own reading.  All in all, this seems like sensible stuff from the practical son of an Indiana farmer — who turned into a scientist, physician, psychiatrist and now educator.

(One concern: he may be getting swept up in the Dr. Oz fame whirl.  I hope he will avoid becoming faddish and commercial, pandering to the demands of TV fans who demand new woo woo immediate magic cures every day. So let’s go catch him now, in case he gets spoiled.)

I just ordered his Happiness Diet book to see if it’s a good patient education tool. Just THINK of all the people who are having trouble getting well.  Their medications aren’t working, they can’t tolerate their medications; therapy isn’t working, they don’t like their therapist.  I wonder how many could help heal themselves by thinking of food as therapy– and start making their brains healthier by eating nutritious (and delicious) food!

Do tell me what you think after you look at all of this stuff.


November 18, 2015

Our proposal for “upstream” services to reduce “downstream” inflow onto SSDI

Kim Burton, Tom Wickizer, and I have a good idea for how to reduce the inflow onto Social Security Disability Insurance.  Ours was among only twelve proposals selected for further development during a “competition of ideas” held by the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Once selected, we fleshed out the proposal in a written report.  It recommends the development, testing, refinement and launch of a nationwide Health & Work Service (HWS) that would assist workers who have recently developed potentially disabling conditions to maximize their functional recovery, stay at or return to work — and either KEEP their jobs or FIND new ones!  Our report describes why the service is needed and how it would work.  It includes many literature citations that provide a solid foundation for our proposal as a whole as well as specific design features of the HWS.

SSDI Solutions Initiative

The full reports have just been released to the public.   You can find all 12 of them here:   http://ssdisolutions.org/selected-papers.

And you can find ours here:  http://ssdisolutions.org/sites/default/files/christianwickizerburton.pdf  There is a main report and 3 (juicy) appendices.  One oddity is that the editors removed all biographical or organizational info about the 3 authors.  We could be 3 dogcatchers or 3 priests or 3 unemployed hula dancers for all the readers will ever know.  Here’s info about me and my co-authors:  Jennifer Christian, Thomas Wickizer and Kim Burton.

I verbally presented our idea in just 6 MINUTES at the SSDI Solutions conference on August 4, 2015.   Here’s a video of the entire event.  (My presentation starts about minute 36).

Do you happen to know any professionals who would LOVE to be part of a national effort to help people mitigate the impact of illness and injury on their lives and futures — and prevent needless work disability?  I do!!!  Among them are many of my physician and psychology colleagues in the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, the many professional members in a wide variety of disciplines on the Work Fitness & Disability Roundtable — and most especially the 100 Founding and Charter members of the nascent but still unfunded Praxis Partners Consortium.

Hey, I have an idea!  If you like the idea of a HWS service, why not get in touch with the people at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and tell them so!   Here’s a link to their “contact us” page:  http://ssdisolutions.org/contact/ssdi


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.


October 10, 2015

Some specifics: Our proposal for a Health & Work Service

In our August 2015 proposal to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget on Capitol Hill, we recommended that a community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) be established.  The services to be provided by the HWS are generally not available in our country today, particularly to lower-wage workers and those who work for small firms.This service would be dedicated to responding rapidly to new episodes of health-related work absence among working people in order to help them:

— Minimize life disruption and get things back to normal as quickly as it is medically safe to do so
— Focus attention on treatments and services to restore ability to function at home and at work
— Understand and navigate through the healthcare and benefits programs and systems
— Avoid being abandoned; learn how to be a squeaky wheel and get their needs met
— Communicate with all parties to expedite both medical care and the return to work process, including resolving non-medical obstacles to recovery and return to work, making temporary adjustments or arranging reasonable accommodation when appropriate.
— Keep their jobs or promptly find new ones if that is necessary.

(The material below summarizes our written proposal.  If you’re interested in the scientific research that underlies these ideas, the 30+ pages and 3 appendices of our “real deal” formal report support all key assertions with literature citations and an extensive bibliography.  Along with the 12 other proposals commissioned by the SSDI Solutions Initiative group, it is scheduled to be published electronically in late October, and in print in January 2016.)

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 the USA today, a large and growing fraction of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards are being made to people deemed totally unable to work due to conditions that are among the most common health problems in America and the world, but which only rarely cause permanent withdrawal from the workforce. Low back pain and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK), and common mood disorders (CMD) —particularly depression and anxiety—are the most prominent conditions in this category.

Near-immediate assistance from a community-focused Health & Work Service will allow people with these kinds of common conditions to avoid the kind of adverse secondary consequences they too often experience today. Those consequences are usually not obvious until months or years later, after unfortunate things have happened. The unlucky ones have received sub-optimal health care, been left with under-treated 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. 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.

As we envision it, the HWS will build strong collaborative relationships with referral sources in local communities: treating physicians, employers, and benefits payers. Service delivery in individual cases can be largely telephonic and internet-based because these technologies are proving to be as or more effective than face-to-face care delivery. The quadruple goal is to maximize service quality, optimize outcomes, minimize logistical challenges, and control costs. The HWS service will:

(a) — get its referrals from affected individuals, local treating physicians, employers, benefits payers and others when work absence has lasted or is expected to last more than four weeks;

(b) — champion the stay-at-work and return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process from the time of referral through the end of the immediate response period (usually 12 weeks post onset);

(c) —  quickly evaluate the individual’s situation, screen for known risks for poor outcomes, help them make a SAW/RTW plan and support them in carrying it out;

(d) —  facilitate communications among all involved parties as needed to get everyone on the same page and driving towards the best possible outcome.;

(e) — expedite and coordinate 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;

(f) — take a problem-solving approach in collaboration with affected individuals, their treating physicians, employers, and payers.

Of course, developing the HWS will first require a commitment to funding, either by the government or by a foundation that is committed to system change. Once that has been obtained, the initiative will unfold in a series of steps including design, prototyping, development, and field-testing in different geographies, followed by a large randomized controlled trial.  After that, the HWS can gradually roll out across large geographic areas.

What does this mean for you?   First, if you like the idea of working people getting the kind of support they need and deserve — and when it is most likely to make a difference,  please support this idea in whatever way you can.  Why not call or email your Congressman?  Second, if you are a professional with the expertise and passion required to help people get “right back on the horse” — and are now stymied and frustrated by the current system’s inadequacies / dysfunctions, you have probably realized that the HWS service might create a lot of fulfilling and satisfying jobs for specialists like you.  If so…. that’s another reason to call or email your Congressman!


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!

 

 

 


October 8, 2015

Dan Siegel says I can use my mind to reshape my brain — or YOURS!

I’m in the middle of taking an on-line course by Daniel Siegel, MD.  I hope you do, too.   It’s called “Practicing Mindsight” — 6 hours consisting of 32 video mini-lectures delivered live to an audience of about 240 mental health professionals, physicians, educators, as well as organizational behavior and social policy wonks.   (I’ve also  heard a great TED talk by this guy).  He’s a famous psychiatrist, trained at Harvard Medical School and UCLA, now clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, an award-winning educator – and expert researcher in the emerging field of “interpersonal neurobiology”.

It’s on a website called www.Udemy.com.  I’ve listened to the first 9 mini-lectures so far.  He began by asking how many of the professionals in the audience think the mind is important in everyday affairs — and in their practices/organizations.  All hands went up.  Then he asked how many had any instruction on what the mind is?   Five percent raised their hands.   He says that the proportion has been similar in 85,000 professionals he has asked.   He  says the purpose of the course is:  How to see the mind and make it stronger.    I say the course is focused on STRATEGIES for changing the STRUCTURE of the brain (one’s own and that of one’s patients/clients) by using the mind.   Think of that:  USING the mind as a tool to INTENTIONALLY remodel circuits in the brain.

Here are three big points I have heard in his lectures so far:

(a) Key definition:   The mind is a PROCESS not a thing.  It REGULATES (monitors and directs) the flow of energy and information both within an individual and between people.  (Energy is roughly defined as stuff that makes things happen.  Information is both data and meaning or story.)  As part of his grant-funded work, he had put together a group of 40 researchers in a wide variety of fields who were all (eventually) able to agree on this definition.

(b) “Attention” – which is where the mind focuses, what it is paying attention to  – is what CREATES new neural pathways, and STRENGTHENS either existing or new ones by reinforcing the pathway.  As the saying goes: “neurons that fire together wire together”.  For example, the more we pay attention to our pain (assessing it, worrying about it, “fighting” it), the deeper we are carving that channel.  Common sense, grandmothers, and “New Agers” have been telling us for years to focus on what we DO want instead of what we DON’T want  — and now science is confirming it.

(c) Humans are genetically programmed to AUTOMATICALLY create internal experiences and capabilities that mirror or incorporate things they see or feel during interactions with others.  As we watch someone else raise a glass of water to his lips, the cells in our brains that move our own arms light up.  We sense his intention to drink, we may experience thirst, or the sensation of water or of refreshment.  We feel sad when someone cries, and are happy at their joy.  Others’ brains shape what goes on in ours —  what circuits are firing and being reinforced — and vice versa.  Simultaneous mutual (interpersonal) experience is a KEY part of the “social” in our “social species”.

So I got this:  The techniques we use to SHIFT our attention (or another person’s attention) away from bad stuff and towards more productive ways of thinking are actually MODULATING neural circuitry in the brain (which is neuroplasticity in action).  This has now been confirmed by rigorous research on techniques such as mindfulness, CBT, etc.   (I personally remember reading a study which showed that SIMILAR changes in the brain can be observed after either medication OR “talk therapy”.  In that TED talk by Siegel that I watched, he asserts that much of the circuitry in our frontal lobe is created and shaped by everyday INTERPERSONAL INTERACTIONS which DEVELOP it – and of course it is our frontal lobes which make us uniquely human.)

The takeaway for us as physicians in tangible organ-system-focused specialties is there is POWER TO HEAL in our words —  and in the human quality of our interpersonal interactions.  We have an opportunity to INTENTIONALLY HARNESS that power and explicitly add it to our therapeutic armamentarium.

Although the mental health professions already are aware of the power of words and relationships, physicians are on the front-line dealing with patients with PHYSICAL complaints and distress.  We are in the best position to use the power of words and relationships to start relieving those symptoms and easing that distress — even if all we do is alert the patient to the healing power of the mind and persuade them to accept help from a mental health professional.  Apparently, the only specialty these days that requires training in patient communication is family practice.  Thus, this appears to be a neglected skill area in all of the other medical specialties.

Those of us who have accepted the idea that sickness and disability are the COMBINED product of bio-psycho-socio-economic factors, and who are setting out to reduce the disruptive/destructive impact of injury/illness on quality of the patient’s everyday life and future – especially in at risk cases and “heartsink patients” — MUST master this stuff.  We need to practice the SCIENTIFIC ART of empathic therapeutic interaction.  We must learn how to effectively redirect the patient’s attention into more appropriate channels so they develop their own capability to adapt to / cope effectively with their own situations.

The tuition for the Siegel Practicing Mindsight course is usually $137, but if you follow the directions below, you may be able to get a $39 special rate.  It supposedly ends TODAY — although it supposedly ended yesterday, too.  Some people don’t seem to be able to find the $39 offer.  There’s probably a glitch of some kind that is making it show up only when you wend your way through the electrons a particular way.

Here’s how I found it again just now:  I use Firefox.  I entered  “daniel siegel mindsight” in the search box, then I clicked on the link for an Udemy ADVERTISEMENT that appeared in the top left corner of the search results.  The website that appears says the rate is $39 again today (coupon valid until October 8).   But when I went STRAIGHT to the udemy site, the cost is $137.

Go for it — fool around, and then REGISTER!   But bring your brain AND appreciation for quirkiness with you.   This is  fascinating material taught by a deep and independent thinker, serious expert and experienced researcher.  And, Siegel is a character with really colorful personal stories:  so far we’ve heard tales of misfittery in medical school, salmon fishery, dance, nudity in Greece, etc.


July 20, 2015

My “mini-manifesto” to reduce spine disability

You may be interested in the “mini-manifesto” I delivered this past Saturday 7/18 at the Spine 10×25 Research Summit in Chicago hosted by the North American Spine Foundation.  They have declared a worthy and very ambitious goal:  to reduce spine disability by 10 percent by the year 2025.  Thus the name: Spine 10×25. Pronounce it like you’re buying lumber – “10 by 25”.

(You can see the video and listen to my talk —  or even the ENTIRE 8 hour event because it was live-streamed and recorded.  Click here to do so.  Advance the recording by moving the blue dot along the horizontal line.  My talk starts at 5:31:50 and goes until 5:51:30.)

Do you know of any other medical group that has drawn a bold line in the sand like that?  I don’t.  It had never occurred to me that a professional society would set out to measurably move the needle.  They just don’t take on that type of project.  Most healthcare professional associations content themselves with pontificating:  being experts and telling other people what to do and how to do it.

My own professional society (ACOEM – the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine) has made many significant contributions to society.  In particular, our evidence-based treatment guidelines are very well regarded and in use by several states.   ACOEM has produced many other useful publications that have had a positive impact.  In fact, some of them were developed under my leadership.  But, in the end, they all amount to pontification.

In 2006, I told ACOEM I didn’t want one of those documents to just sit on an electronic shelf. We had developed it in order to introduce the work disability prevention paradigm and shift the way all stakeholders think about work disability.  Entitled “Preventing Needless Work Disability By Helping People Stay Employed“, that report needed to go out into the world.  Thus, the 60 Summits Project was born to carry it into the 50 US states and 10 Canadian provinces of North America.  We created groups of volunteer professionals who planned and held 20 multi-stakeholder summit-type conferences in 12 states and 2 provinces.  We invited the attendees to consider ACOEM’s 16 recommendations for improving the stay-at-work and return-to-work process.  We asked them to decide if they liked each recommendation, and if so, to make a plan for how they were going to carry it out in their own business, community, and jurisdiction. (60 Summits eventually ran out of money and was mothballed.)

Then last month, the boldness of the Spine 10x 25 initiative made me realize that even The 60 Summits Project had a pontification angle to it.  Propagating a new way of thinking and discussing a set of recommendations for change is not the same thing as CARRYING them OUT.  I felt compelled to go and check out these NASF people and participate in their Spine 10×25 Research Summit.

My assigned topic was “Precedents and Prospects for Success” in a 15 minute time slot that got expanded to 20.  It seemed important to speak straight and share my ideas about what needs to be true in order for their goal to be realized.  I offered the audience a (draft) conceptual foundation to use as a context for change, as well a summary-level vision of the way things will look in the future WHEN things have ACTUALLY changed and spine disability is BEING REDUCED by 10%.  View it here. Remember to advance the recording to 5:31:50.

I may expand a bit on some of the main points of that mini-manifesto in later posts.  I developed all of those slides at the conference in order to take into account what the speakers said who had gone before me!  Luckily, I also had some time at lunch.  The tight time limit meant a few big ideas got short shrift.