Category Archives: People, Organizations & Websites

May 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table-Best and worst states for disabled employment


November 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 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 19, 2015

WHY would I want to live to 101?

I am a bit upset and depressed because I just learned my life expectancy is 101 — according to the electronic calculator that analyzed my answers on the Health Age Questionnaire.  I found it on the website of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.  It seems like a good organization aimed mostly at doctors who prevent chronic disease by prescribing and teaching healthy lifestyles.  However, they had better come up with a better argument for lifestyle change than this:   “Wow, if you do everything we recommend, you get to live until you’re entirely useless, helpless, and bored out of your mind.”

After I got the 101 prediction, I redid the questionnaire, this time shading several answers to the “sad” side instead of the “happy” side — and the darned thing STILL says I’m going to live to 94.  Phooey!  Who the heck WANTS to live that long?  NOT ME!   I can clearly imagine my quality of life is likely to be by then. By the time Americans get over the age of 90-something, the VAST majority are demented, frail, and unable to live independently — and I might add have become totally irrelevant in the eyes of the rest of American society, with a status more similar to pets or babies than adults.

That was my dad’s fate.   He died just a few days before he turned 89 — after refusing medical care for a heart attack because he had been WAITING for a way to die.  Before that day, his medical problems were basically age-related degeneration.

A Harvard College, Harvard Medical School grad, former Director of one of the National Institutes of Health, my dad re-invented himself and his career at least three times.   Originally trained as a pediatrician, he spent most of his career focused on child and maternal health, family planning, and other services to facilitate optimal development and health of the population.  At about age 50, he left the pressure of Washington DC, gave up on a difficult marriage to my mother, and moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  He became a county health officer, developed a wide circle of friends and got involved in community affairs.  He was always a kind, optimistic, creative, and positive person, even though he didn’t have much of a sense of humor.  But his fun-loving second wife put him up to a lot of innocent mischief.  We have a photo of him in Florida wearing a lei on his head, a bra made of coconut shells and a hula skirt — and a HUGE SMILE (while stone sober, I may add).

Around about age 80 he “retired” from medicine.  And then, with some partners, he started a Sylvan Learning Center franchise and founded the Delmarva Education Foundation.  He was still in there pitching, though clearly slowing down.

Shirley, his beloved second wife died in May of 2006, the year he turned 84.   A few days after that, he commented to me “I’ll never be the center of anyone’s life ever again.” His zest for life was gone because she was.  She had cherished him and nurtured him — and vice versa.  He was lonely, sad after that, and grew increasingly bitter.  He had zero interest in finding a new companion or keeping up his social life. Treatment for “depression” had no effect.  My sister who lived nearby did yeoman work to be family and provide companionship to him — and do the practical work required to keep him in the housing complex for independent elders where he lives.   By the time she gave up and moved him to assisted living, there were FOUR part-time workers supporting him — plus her.  However, Daddy was right, of course — he never was the center of anyone’s life again.

He had already given me his healthcare power of attorney.  We had explicitly discussed his wish that I protect him from “the medical juggernaut” in case he was unable to do it himself.  He also did done some exploring of ways to exit gracefully.  I sent him an article from the New England Journal about what dying is like for patients with terminal conditions who refuse food and drink as they near the end of life.  But when my dad in Maryland discussed this with his psychologist, the psychologist pronounced the method both a sin and against the law — so Daddy resigned himself to sticking around.   In February of 2008, almost two years after Shirley’s death, Daddy (who could no longer write because of a worsening tremor) dictated this to his psychologist:

Because of my many disabilities – vision, hearing, etc. – I am happy to take advantage of the first opportunity that the Lord provides to join my wife Shirley in heaven.  My daughter Jennifer holds the medical power of attorney for me.  As a physician, she has the knowledge to determine what conditions are most likely to result in death, or result in disability that I would have to live with.  In the former case, I would like medical care withheld if my condition would ordinarily result in death, and would like for hospice to provide palliative care.  In the latter case, I will just ‘grin and bear it’.   I have made peace with the Lord in this decision, and ask that all my children support the decision that I have made.

As he neared 90, the burdens of age had became even heavier.  He still had no “terminal” conditions other than age.  He was deaf, could no longer read or see the computer screen due to macular degeneration, had a tremor, chronic pain due to joint degeneration, and was very weak.   He had lost all of his curiosity and most of his mental power.  At one point, he was on 14 different medications,  most of them with no discernible effect.  I asked his doctors to stop as many as possible because nothing could reverse the progress of aging.

In the end, Daddy handled his exit firmly and gracefully, by himself, when he developed severe chest pain.  He obviously recognized it for what it was — a potential way out.   He told the ER doctor:  “I’m just here to check and make sure it IS a heart attack.  If so, all I want is morphine, no treatment.”   The ER doctor, luckily, had her wits about her and suggested hospice.  He immediately said yes.  He lived less than a month — long enough to have one last Christmas Dinner with his kids and grandkids.  Then he let go and left this earth.

More than twenty years earlier, Daddy and I had completed a multi-scenario medical decision-making worksheet.  It was designed to make us think about and decide what we wanted our caregivers to do in various medical scenarios if we became unable to express our wishes. Surprisingly, that conversation wasn’t a downer at all.  In fact it was the best conversation I think I EVER had with him because we talked frankly and intimately about what made life worth living for each of us personally — and when it wouldn’t be worth continuing.   At the time, he said he wanted to be kept alive until he couldn’t enjoy the day anymore.   Yet as things turned out, he was forced to live four years after he had stopped being able to enjoy the day.  .

We humans have invented ways that are KEEPING people alive longer, but we haven’t yet invented ways to safely and humanely allow those who HAVE BEEN kept alive past the time when they find quality of life tolerable to say they have “had enough, thank you” and move on to the next realm.

I don’t want to share my Dad’s fate.  The idea of being sidelined, trying to think up “ways to pass the time” because I’ve become too deaf and blind to read or interact with others or do anything useful, beset with the chronic aches and pains of aging bones and joints makes me feel YUCK, or more accurately, DREAD.

Even if I were a “hale and hearty” 90 year old, I can’t think of a PURPOSE that I personally would find exciting enough to make life worth living when I’ve been alive that long.  “Smelling the roses” doesn’t do it for me — because I am already starting to feel like I’ve had my fill of a lot of things.  Been there, done that.  Been THERE and done THAT, too.

For the foreseeable future, my current purpose for living are these:
1)  Devote my energy and talents to leaving the campground of life better than I found it.
2)  Enjoy everyday life with my husband, family, and friends — and the outdoor world.
3)  Seek beauty and truth, especially in music, opera, theatre, dance, the visual arts, and spiritual practice.
4)  Grow in wisdom and kindness.  A VERY COOL thing is that personal growth & development in these two areas are available to all ages, including the very old (ahem, until dementia sets in).

What does this mean for you — if anything?   Maybe you could think about what makes life worth living for you.  It will make you feel STRONG and GOOD to do it.    Fill out a Five Wishes living will from Aging with Dignity that gives your caregivers instructions for how to care for you in case you can’t tell them yourself at a critical moment.   And, do think about what you want the quality of your life to be like and how long you DO want to live.   Do YOU really WANT to live to 101 or to 120?  Why?  What FOR?


October 14, 2015

Let’s stop using words with a “nocebo” effect!

I hereby nominate the first three candidates — the terms “I can’t”,”injured worker,” and “injury”– for elimination from the lexicon of workers’ compensation because they are causing harm.  After having talked with Kristina Phillips again about her trouble with her workers’ compensation claim, I see the negative impact those three terms have had on her life.

Kristina’s had a very rocky course with initial denials of coverage for some parts of her injury, long delays of authorizations for specialty as well as rehabilitation care, unhelpful advice from the state’s ombudsmen, an unresponsive attorney, multiple court hearings, etc — all while she has been living with ongoing pain and limitation of motion.  She’s better, but not ALL better yet — and it’s been 18 months since she was attacked on the subway.

As we talked, she remarked that she finally woke up and realized that in order to get better she HAD to stop using the phrase “I can’t” and replace it “HOW CAN I do this?”   Every time she said “I can’t”, her world got smaller.   She was becoming a hermit.  She had stopped leaving the house whenever it rained or during commuting hours because she was avoiding the New York subway system.  Because they are so crowded, Kristina was concerned about being jostled which causes her pain.   She was unwilling to explain her situation to strangers and ask them not to lean into her or push her, much less ask them to move their stuff so she could sit down.  Shortly after she swore off “I can’t”, she realized she also had to start asking for help.  Once she became comfortable with telling people she has a problem, it has been gratifying to see how kindly most of them respond. The new approach has allowed her to expand the times when she can use the subways — which means she is out and about more frequently now.

That got me to thinking.  I had heard Kristina mention her “injury” several times. She kept talking about it as though her wounds are still present, despite the fact that her injury occurred 18 months ago.  In fact, those injured tissues have probably been healed for more than a year.   What she’s actually dealing with are the consequences of the injury, not the injury itself.

Calling oneself “injured” is similar to calling oneself “sick” — in a vulnerable state with life disrupted, out of commission, off on a sideline away from the regular rhythm of life.  Someone who describes themselves as “recovering” or “dealing with the aftermath” may be struggling, but it’s because they are wending their way back into the mainstream of life.

I suddenly realized that the WORD “injury” has probably been intensifying Kristina’s distress and symptoms, and delaying resolution of this episode in her life.  That is by definition the “nocebo” effect — the evil twin brother of the placebo effect, in which words or beliefs or sugar pills relieve symptoms and allows healing.   So, I recommended that “injury” should be the NEXT term she stops using to describe her current situation.   And on the spot, I educated her about the basic biology of how fast tissues heal.

It depends on the type of tissue.  Generally speaking, the cornea of the eye heals in about 24 hours; a simple skin wound usually takes 7-10 days; bones and muscles often take 6 weeks, sometimes 8 to 9 and occasionally 12 weeks.  Nerves can take months (and sometimes years) to regrow.  But as a rough rule of thumb for most injuries, all the tissues have usually healed by 90 days — no matter what happened.  Additional gains may be made slowly for a year or more, often as the result of rehabilitation and reconditioning.   Function and comfort often continue to improve after healing is complete.

One way to see this clearly is to take the case of a person who suffered a major body burn — a widespread and deep one that went down into the muscle.  The burning itself was over in minutes.  Some areas of skin and underlying tissues were destroyed and other areas were left damaged and weeping.  The tissue healing process was in full swing by 7 days and by the time it was complete, had produced extensive scar.  The skin was as healed as it was going to get, but it left behind stiff and painful scar.  The scar is a CONSEQUENCE of the injury, not a sign that the burn injury is on-going.   Rehabilitation for burn patients focuses on minimizing the impact of scarring on appearance and function.

Kristina listened hard and seemed to “get it” – but not completely.  She is still in the habit of viewing herself as “hurt” (fragile).  When something happens and she feels pain, she may be interpreting it as a sign she is being damaged or re-injured further – rather than seeing herself as a person who is stuck living with the painful (but harmless) consequences of a previous injury.

So, in my view, the most accurate way to describe Kristina’s situation is that she HAD an injury and is still dealing WITH and recovering FROM its effects.  The injury is in the past.  It is not accurate to say she still HAS an injury.  The choice of words make a real difference.

And lastly, the term “injured worker” has got to go because those words communicate no possibility of either recovery or a positive future.  How can people who’ve had an accident at work ever consider themselves well as long as they are being called by that name?  That term doesn’t even hint at the fact that the vast majority of people who have an injury recover promptly and heal completely.  The unlucky people who don’t end up fully healed are left with things like scars and stiff joints, not unhealed wounds.  The previous term “claimant” was discredited and abandoned because it was too impersonal — but it did not doom the person to a negative and unchanging future.

All along, Kristina has been strongly motivated to get better and get back to earning a good living.   She has been doing everything she can to get herself better and to advocate for herself in the “systems”.  Imagine the “nocebo” impact of these three terms on a person without the inner resources Kristina has brought to bear!

What does this mean for you?   If you are involved with the workers’ compensation system, please abandon the term “injured worker” and “injury” when discussing events longer than 3 months ago.  Talk about “recovery” or “recuperation” instead.  And maybe we should go back to “claimant”, or an even better term.  For now, a few of my colleagues and I have started saying “affected person”.   And if you are a person who had a musculoskeletal work-related injury more than 12 weeks ago, please assume that your tissues are healed.  And, like Kristina start saying “how can I do this” instead of “I can’t.” It is time to start dealing with the consequences of that injury and get the whole thing behind you.   Focus on accepting what you’re stuck with (at least for now), rehabilitate yourself, get back in the best shape you can — and focus on minimizing its impact on the quality of your life and your future!


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.


September 7, 2015

FMLA may be a Godsend – but not for me or Kristina

I’m in Indiana this week for my second stint at tending to my 92 year old father in law.   In late August, I flew here on an urgent basis because he had been admitted to the hospital in heart failure and was not doing well either mentally or physically.  He went downhill in the hospital.  Imagine four nurses and an orderly trying to restrain a 92 year old man who thinks he’s being kidnapped, and you’ve got the picture.   When things calmed down, he was transferred to a specialty heart center in Indianapolis and had a remarkable non-invasive and HIGH TECH procedure called a TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement – watch the amazing video).  Since then he has made a good physical recovery but continues to have some heart failure as well as confusion and forgetfulness, and we are unsure how much of this cognitive problem is new vs. pre-existing, and whether it might be temporary (due to lingering effects of anesthesia).

After that first week, my husband flew out to relieve me and I flew home.   He presided over Dad’s discharge to a rehab facility, and helped Dad get used to that new environment.   After a few days, we traded places again because David has some work that MUST be done at home, and I can take my work just about anywhere.  (We arranged our flights so we could have a 2 hour “date” at the airport.)    So here I am back in Indiana.   The issue on the table now is:  can this 92 year old guy continue to live alone, cook and clean for himself, and drive himself 20 minutes each way to the doctor’s office and the grocery store in his car?   My father in law insists the answer is yes.   We (his two sons and their wives – a physician and a nurse) are trying to figure out how to make it work.  What is the RIGHT level of supportive services and is there a way to provide them in his teeny tiny hamlet community   – so small there is not a single store of any kind.

Reality has intruded:  I’ve gotten almost no work done this week, nor the week when he was in the hospital.    Dealing with his medically-, administratively-, and emotionally-complex situation is VERY time-consuming and energy draining.    I am keeping him company, reassuring him, entertaining him,  making him comfortable, and ensuring that services are delivered when needed.  Then in hallways with the doctors and nurses, and in off hours with the family, I am acting as his medical advocate while anticipating and planning for the future.   For example, I have so far spent about 5  hours figuring out whether we can get him a cell phone that will work better with his hearing aids and his severe hand tremors, and then arranging for it  – so he can more reliably RECEIVE and MAKE calls with his “support network”  when he’s back at home.

In the meanwhile, it has become obvious that I am simply incapable of radically switching gears and lives in the same day.  I have to FORCE myself to slow down and get into the glacial rhythm of life in a nursing home with a tremulous deaf 92 year old and his compatriots who deserve respect and compassion.   I am not mentally / emotionally flexible enough to INSTANTLY reconstitute myself as an impatient, driven professional and resume my usual pressured work pace in the few hours I have in between events. (This predicament feels familiar – a reminder why my masters’ thesis remained incomplete for such a long time while my kids were little and underfoot.   I just COULDN’T snap into and back forth between the “way of being” for Attentive-Mommy-Household-Manager vs. Graduate-Student-Writer during nap times.  My hat is off to those who can!)

This experience is also a reminder of how important the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is.   It protects the jobs of working people while allowing them to take leave to care for illness in close family members. However, this experience is also a reminder that FMLA is not the WHOLE answer.   For example, it doesn’t protect ME in this situation.  First, I am the daughter-in-law, not the daughter – and the FMLA explicitly excludes in-laws.  Also, I work for myself so I can’t be fired.  But  I can lose my livelihood by not being able to do my work – since as a consultant I generally get paid by the hour or by the deliverable, assuming it is produced on time!   No work, no pay. Luckily, my financial situation is such that I CAN forego the income for now so I CAN be here and support him in an hour of need.   If forced to choose, I will put my time and expertise to use in helping my husband fulfill his duty to this vulnerable and incredibly kind old man who deserves to be treated kindly after a lifetime spent in humble service to his family, friends, neighbors, and parishioners as a Methodist pastor.   There are limits, of course, and I know I can’t sustain this pace forever.

The limits of the FMLA also became apparent last week when I talked to Kristina Phillips, a young woman in New York City whose life was turned upside down by a work-related injury about 18 months ago.  Kristina had recently moved to the city.  She’s a sales person and was assaulted on a subway while riding between accounts.   Her longest-lasting injuries were to her neck and shoulder, and still interfere with her ability to lift and carry.  The treatments the doctor recommended for the first 6 months were inadequate, did not reveal the correct diagnoses, and did not get her better.  The insurance company initially denied more extensive care.  She sought help from a lawyer who wanted to expand her claim and have her see more doctors to talk about her PTSD – but what Kristina wanted was to focus on the future, get the right treatment, and get well.   All the state ombudsman did when she called to ask for assistance was tell her to request a hearing.   Hearings take MONTHS.

Her employer was very solicitous and helpful, but after Kristina couldn’t perform the essential duties of her job for more than 6 months, she did lose her job.  (FMLA only protects jobs for 12 weeks.)  Kristina couldn’t afford COBRA payments on her workers’ comp checks, so she lost her health insurance, too.   Her family couldn’t come to her aid.   She is an only child of parents with very constrained financial circumstances living in a very remote area of the Pacific Northwest.  Kristina started worrying about becoming homeless.   A new friend saw her distress and brought her some food.  He had taken Landmark Education courses and made it possible for Kristina to take the 3 day Landmark Forum workshop in which she realized she had to figure out how to get better and back to work by herself, while she continues in therapy.  She applied for and got some jobs that turned out to be beyond her capabilities. Kristina has now invented a new consulting business for herself which is starting to take off.

And in her spare time, she wants to DO SOMETHING so that others will not have to struggle the way she did.  Kristina wants to create resources to guide people who have been injured on how to get back on their feet – because “the system” doesn’t do that.   Needless to say, we are now talking about how I can support her in that endeavor!


August 14, 2015

Interview with Praxis Partners founding member: Chris Brigham, MD

From time to time I will be interviewing members of the Praxis Partners Consortium, and encouraging them to tell us what they are up to. This first interview is with one of the founders of Praxis, Christopher Brigham, MD.  He is an internationally recognized thought leader on human potential, impairment, and disability. More biographical information appears below the interview.

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JC:  Please begin by telling us, Dr. Brigham, why you decided to join the group that founded the Praxis Partners Consortium?
There appears to be an underlying philosophy that we share.  Contemporary society needlessly traps so many into being injured and ill, and ultimately to being disabled.  Our health care and disability “systems” are broken and badly in need of repair – ultimately resulting in poor health outcomes and needless disability. We have fragmented components that often focus on what is most beneficial for the providers and others in the industry, rather the individual.  Incentives, perceptions and motivations often make all the difference in our health and in our lives. Societally-defined “disability” often fails to recognize the dynamics of human potential and the benefits of an active life.  Each day countless individuals experience needless disability and poor health outcomes that are preventable. As a nation, employers, and insurers we confront ever-increasing costs. This is a tragedy for each of us, our families and our society.  The United States leads the world in health care costs, however we are not healthier nor do we live longer.  We need to share this information widely.  It is together that we will create change, starting by creating awareness.

JC:  Can you tell us a bit about the book that you and Henry Bennett recently published entitled Living Abled & Healthy: Your Guide to Injury & Illness Recovery.
Living Abled & Healthy is a guide for all of us on taking charge during injury or illness rather than allowing others to take charge of us. It is linked with a website, www.livingabled.com, which provides web-based resources.

JC: What inspired you to write Living Abled & Healthy?
For over three decades, as a clinician and as a researcher focusing on health and disability issues, I have pondered:
• Why do people with similar problems, even when they receive the same care, sometimes have dramatically different outcomes?
• What defines disability and how may it be prevented?
• How do compensation systems, healthcare professionals, and our own actions contribute to our health or disability?
• How are we best able to experience joyful and productive lives?

I had encountered too many people who were experiencing needlessly diminished lives, while at the same time I was inspired by others who were living exceptional lives despite significant injury and illness.  I have also been appalled by others who misuse trusting individuals for personal financial gain.  I realized I could have more impact by writing and sharing my insights with others, and my co-author Henry Bennett supported me in making that possible.

JC:  Can you share some tips from your book on how to recover from injury or illness?
Here are ten core principles that we have found most helpful in recovering from injury or illness
1. Taking control of our life and health
We all need to take and keep control of our lives, including our health. When we have a health challenge, we need to identify our best resources and then take action. No one else may be allowed to dictate our lives. Our moments of doubt must not be exploited by others.

2. Staying positive
A positive attitude helps us to focus on our strengths, understand but ignore our weaknesses, and move on with our lives. When we change our thinking and our beliefs, we change our lives.

3. Partnering with quality healthcare providers practicing evidence-based and data-driven medicine
When doctors offer us a conclusion or recommendation—whether about our diagnosis, what caused our problem, or ordering tests or treatments—we want to believe they have solid reasons. We want our medical care to be based on the best available evidence, identified by scientific method, for clinical decision-making. This process is known as “evidence-based medicine.”

4. Approaching health problems from a “biopsychosocial” perspective
To better understand injury, illness, and disability, we embrace a “biopsychosocial” approach including biological, psychological, and social elements. Physical illnesses affect all of who we are—including our minds and spirits. Our mind-body connections are surprisingly strong. Physical, social, and work environments all affect health.

5. Weighing the risks and benefits of testing and treatment
All testing and treatment is associated with risks and possible benefits. We need to discern what is best for us. When doctors recommend testing or treatment we need to ask what the risks and benefits may be.

6.Focusing on a healthy body, mind, and spirit
Health encompasses our bodies, minds and spirits—they all relate. What goes on in our minds—attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and resiliency—significantly affects what happens in our bodies. Thoughts affect bodies at least as much as bodies affect thoughts. Maintaining a strong spirit gives us purpose. Mastering these concepts helps us master our lives.

7. Choosing smart lifestyles including exercise, diet, and health habits
We can eat right, stay physically fit, maintain an appropriate weight, do our best to sleep well, not smoke, and not abuse alcohol and/or other drugs. Our choices are important factors in whether or not we stay healthy. We need to be honest with ourselves. We can make healthy choices.

8. Weighing the risks and benefits of involving lawyers
Sometimes we need the assistance of lawyers, other times we do not. Involvement with lawyers may complicate our lives and result in poorer outcomes—for us. If our situation requires a lawyer, we need to discern how to select the best lawyer and make sure they are working for us.

9. Cooperating with other healthcare participants and avoiding unnecessary conflict
We should choose our healthcare participants wisely and then maximize the value we obtain from them. This requires careful planning.

10. Continuing with our jobs, if at all possible
Work is, in general, good for our health and well-being. Our work often helps us to establish who we are, our identities, and our status. Work provides structure and gives us a reason—a need—to get up daily. Not working places us at greater risk of poorer physical and mental health, long-standing illnesses, psychological distress, increased use of healthcare resources, and death.

Where can people get more information?
At the website of www.livingabled.com  and the book is available on Amazon, among many other sources.

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Biographical information.  Chris Brigham received a Masters of Medical Science from Rutgers Medical School, an MD from Washington University in St. Louis and did post-graduate training at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine. He is board-certified in occupational medicine, highly credentialed, has edited and co-authored several books, and written over two hundred peer-reviewed articles. He is the Editor of the AMA Guides Newsletter and Senior Contributing Editor for the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Sixth Edition. He is committed to working with others in the application of evidence-based medicine and best practices to promote function and avoid needless disability.  Dr. Brigham is also an accomplished professional speaker. He is passionate about creating change that will:
•    empower individuals to live productive lives and
•    reduce human and financial costs associated with disabling.


August 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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