Tag Archives: outcome measures

January 5, 2017

Why Public-Private Collaboration Is Necessary to Prevent Work Disability

My goal now is to raise awareness about the need for concerted governmental, philanthropic, and private sector action to find better ways to support the millions of workers who lose their livelihoods each year due to injury or illness.  In many cases, this outcome could have been prevented.  And in the New World under President Trump, it will probably be more important than ever to make sure that people get the help they need to KEEP earning a living and STAY in the workforce.

You may be wondering … why work disability is a problem?  Let’s start with the basics. As a practical matter, we already know that lack of work is bad for people and for communities.  Just think about the many millions of dollars the government spends to create jobs and reduce unemployment!  But now, formal research has started confirming how harmful worklessness really is for adults — documenting the consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their marital, family, social and economic well-being.

Since that’s so obvious…. let’s agree that preserving people’s ability to function and work should be a fundamental purpose of health care services.  Successfully doing so should be seen as an especially valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.  And the failure to do so should be called a poor outcome.

Today’s reality is … that whether or not a person with an newly-acquired medical condition is able to function and work afterwards is not even counted as a health outcome!  And there are gaps in our social fabric that are actually creating job loss and work disability.

Here’s one big example of a gap: … None of the three professionals typically responding to workers who are dealing with life disruption due to injury or illness feel any responsibility for actively supporting the workers to keep their jobs or find new ones if necessary. That includes health care professionals, employers, and benefits administrators.  Occasionally, some of these professionals actually advise against work — not realizing the consequences, of course.  The workers are left to fend for themselves;  some lack the confidence or skills to do so successfully.  We need better public policy, stronger governmental efforts, and more support from the private sector in order to prevent this needless work disability.

Do you realize… that roughly half of the people now receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other prolonged disability benefits started out with very common health problems like back pain, depression, and anxiety?  And do you realize that the vast majority of people in the country who develop those same conditions don’t even take any time off work or are able to return after just a short absence?   So the people who end up on SSDI are members of a subgroup that has had unexpectedly poor outcomes — including job loss.

You might ask …why does this sub-group have such poor outcomes of conditions that normally don’t cause much work disability at all?  It’s logical to assume that these people had the most severe cases of back pain or depression and so on, but in most cases there’s actually no objective data to support that idea.  For every person now on long-term disability there are others who started out with the exact same condition, but are still working.  From the strictly medical point of view, they looked identical at the beginning.  What is different is the way the illness episode unfolded in the two groups:  what happened; how others talked to them and treated them; the decisions they made about the best way to manage this life challenge; the effectiveness of the medical treatment they received; the other kinds of support they got and the opportunities that were or weren’t available.

My personal hope is that … more employed people who are dealing with new injuries or illnesses are going to get what they need at the right time to avoid needless impairment work absence, job loss, withdrawal from the work force, and long-term reliance on disability benefits — which really means a life of poverty.  That would be good for them, for the tax payers, and for our society as a whole.

Now that these issues are in the spotlight …. It is time for policy makers, employers, healthcare providers, health and disability insurers, other service providers, and affected individuals to start talking together about solutions — and then do their part to make those things happen.

For the last three years, Mathematica‘s policy researchers Yoni Ben Shalom, David Stapleton, and I have been collaborating in the SAW/RTW Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor.  On September 13, 2016, Mathematica held a forum and webinar during which several speakers presented some actionable policy options that can improve outcomes and prevent needless work disability.

If you want to go deeper … Read my short Work Disability Prevention Manifesto by downloading it from the “Current favorites I’m Sharing” section on my blog homepage.  Or you can look at / listen to the recording of the SAW/RTW Collaborative’s September 13 forum/webinar..  Some of the ideas presented by the policy researchers came from surprising angles — and were quite creative / innovative!


October 31, 2016

Social Security Administration seeks input from YOU

I hope you will read — and respond — to this Request for Information issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  SSA is looking for input in order to decide whether to undertake a demonstration project (at the community level) for early intervention in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions – in the first few weeks (<12) after onset of work disruption.

I’m sure SSA will really pay attention to thoughtful input they get from “front line” professionals and researchers / practitioners with expertise in this field — and from patients who have personal experience with the gaps and holes in our systems today that push them towards disability and job loss.

SSA will ONLY proceed with this demonstration project idea if they think it WILL decrease job loss, workforce withdrawal, and eventual applications for SSDI — by reducing needless impairment and disability while preserving livelihoods among the workers.   At this stage, SSA is asking basic questions about the level of evidence supporting the efficacy of early intervention, what the interventions should consist of, as well as the wisdom, practicalities, and potential efficacy of such an effort.

The deadline for responses is November 18.   There is a real possibility this demonstration will actually happen.  The President’s proposed 2017 budget has $200 million allocated for demonstration projects by SSA.    Whether or not that money will ever actually be appropriated will depend on many factors, including which candidate is elected President and the composition of the Congress.

While I was scanning the RFI to find the response date, I was stunned and delighted to see my name listed in one of the 3 references cited at the end!  SSA listed the concept proposal for a Community-Focused Health & Work Service that Tom Wickizer, Kim Burton and I contributed to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  All of the proposals, including ours, are available here: SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program .Maybe our work has actually made some difference – at the very least, SSA is now interested enough to seriously explore our ideas!

Now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference — by reading and responding to SSA’s RFI.


September 9, 2016

Pithy 4-min Video & 1-page Manifesto for you to use

Mathematica just released a 4-minute video of me pointing out why the work disability prevention model is important — in plain language.  The video was made at the request of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).  The main messages in the video are:

  1. MILLIONS of Americans lose their jobs every year due to injury and illness;
  2. Worklessness and job loss have been shown to harm physical and mental health as well as personal, family, social, and economic well-being;
  3. Worklessness and job loss should therefore be considered poor healthcare outcomes;
  4. Unexpectedly poor outcomes can often be prevented and there is good research evidence about how to do that;
  5. Changes need to be made so that vulnerable people get what they need at the time when they need it — and as a result are able to have the best possible life outcome, stay in the workforce, and keep earning their own living.

In addition, the video also explains WHY and HOW some people have unexpectedly poor outcomes of conditions that do not normally cause significant work disruption and job loss.  Unless you’re in my line of work, it is hard to understand why things turn out badly in some cases and not in others — especially if they looked exactly the same at the beginning.

The video is loosely based on a one-page Work Disability Prevention Manifesto I wrote.  I put a draft of it on this blog last spring and got many useful comments.  After many revision cycles, it is now as succinct and compelling as I know how to make it.  ODEP had no hand in the Manifesto; it’s my independent work.

I’m glad I can now share these two items with you because the WORLD needs to know more about these issues—and most PEOPLE in the world have a very short attention span and no interest in the topic to begin with.   I hope you will pass this stuff along to the people whose thinking you want to change or whose buy in you need. Then maybe THEY will pass it along to others as well.  Social norms ONLY SHIFT when people share powerful mind-opening ideas with one another.

Lastly, let’s all stop speaking ABOUT these problems.  It is time for us all to start speaking FOR action and FOR changes.

WORK DISABILITY PREVENTION MANIFESTO
©Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH August 2016

Preventable job loss demands our attention

  • Millions of American workers lose their jobs each year due to injury, illness or a change in a chronic condition.
  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • A new medical problem that simultaneously threatens one’s ability to earn a living creates a life crisis that must be addressed rapidly and wisely. Most people are unprepared for this double-headed predicament. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common ones, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty. However, many prolonged work disability cases covered by private- and public-sector benefits programs began as very common health problems (for example, musculoskeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unexpectedly poor outcomes including job loss.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome. Worklessness is harmful to people’s health, as well as to their family, social, and economic well-being.

Why do such poor outcomes occur?

  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. Both treatment and time off work are sometimes considered benefits to be maximized, rather than tools to be used judiciously.
  • Professionals typically involved in these situations (health care providers, employers, and benefits administrators) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Unexpectedly poor outcomes are frequently due to a mix of medical and nonmedical factors. Diagnosed conditions are inappropriately treated; others (especially psychiatric conditions) are unacknowledged and untreated. The employer, medical office, and insurance company (if there is one) operate in isolation, with little incentive to collaborate.
  • Without the support of a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the health care and benefits systems. With every passing day away from work, the odds worsen that they will ever return. After a while, they start to redefine themselves as too sick or disabled to work.
  • When people lose their jobs and do not find new ones, they barely get by on disability benefits and are vulnerable to other detrimental effects.

How can we fix this problem?

  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unexpectedly poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and how health care and other services can protect jobs.
  • Health-related work disruption should be viewed as a life emergency. Productive activity should be a part of treatment regimens.
  • When work disruption begins, it can be both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator help the individual, treating physician, and employer communicate and focus everyone’s attention on maximizing recovery, restoring function, accommodating irreversible losses, and making plans for how the individual can keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • We must urgently establish accountability for work disability and job loss in our workforce, health care, and disability benefits systems and build nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services—just in time, when needed—that help people stay at work or return to work.

May 18, 2016

It’s time to establish accountability for job loss

My report on Establishing Accountability to Reduce Job Loss After Injury or Illness (commissioned by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy) was originally conceived as a simple effort to lay out the rationale for adding work and participation in life to the list of positive health outcomes.  (I suspect that I was asked to write it because they thought a physician like me would focus on medical practitioners and the healthcare delivery system.)

Almost immediately, it became obvious to me that in order to make a solid contribution to the on-going public dialogue about health outcomes, the paper would have to explore the meaty issues of explicit expectations, accountability, metrics, credible data, rewards for best practices, and incentives for both participation and performance.

Soon after that, the absurdity of discussing expectations and accountability for the healthcare system alone became obvious —because organizations in other sectors of society play a role in the SAW/RTW process, each of which has enough discretionary power to support or thwart it.

Thus, over time, the purpose of the paper shifted to answering this question:  What has to happen in order to engage the professionals at the front-line  — the ones who work directly with affected individuals and make discretionary decisions about how much effort to make and for what purpose — so they start making a real effort to help people stay employed?

Who are those front-line professionals?

(1) Healthcare professionals.  Most of us view our purpose as making accurate diagnoses and providing appropriate treatment.   We are generally not trained to assess work capacity and prevent work disability.  Yet our opinions about work have considerable weight under law, regulations, insurance policies and traditional business practices.  We generally don’t spend much time and energy thinking about issues outside the exam room.

(2) Workplace supervisors or HR professionals.  Their focus is the business of the organization, producing its goods or delivering its services,as well as abiding by company policies and applicable laws. They can decide how much effort to make to help the employee stay at work and keep their job.  With rare exceptions, they are neither aware of the preventable nature of most work disability, nor are they trained how to negotiate and arrange stay at work or return to work plans, identify alternative temporary tasks or reasonable accommodations.  And they are not incentivized to do so.

(3) Claims/benefits administrators.  Their focus is administering the benefit programs correctly, establishing eligibility, compensability, meeting deadlines, making payments, and other requirements. In between these duties, they decide how much effort to make to help the beneficiary/claimant. Like the workplace professionals, with only rare exceptions, they are neither aware of the preventable nature of most work disability, nor are they trained how to negotiate and arrange stay at work or return to work plans, identify alternative temporary tasks or reasonable accommodations.  And they are not incentivized to do so.

Job loss is the third worst outcome of an injury or illness

As I thought about these players and those who influence their behavior, the biggest realization dawned more slowly:  job loss is a potentially devastating secondary consequence of a health-related employment disruption or a failed SAW/RTW process — because it often leads to permanent withdrawal from the workforce.  In fact it is the third worst outcome of a health condition, the other two being death and loss of limb or core functions like sight and hearing.

Yet we have not seen it that way.  Unlike death and serious injury, job loss is generally not noticed.  It’s actually a hidden outcome.  The frequency with which it occurs can only be estimated indirectly — because it is untracked and thus invisible.  When someone loses their job due to long-lasting illness or injury, they often end up leaving leave the workforce permanently, becoming dependent on public benefits programs like SSDI.

Some years ago, a senior Social Security Administration official commented to me that SSDI is the largest insurance fund IN THE WORLD and yet it has no risk management program, no loss prevention program.  Private sector insurance companies view these as core functions of their organizations.  They know they must identify and take steps to reduce risks and mitigate losses in order to meet their responsibilities and stay solvent.

In my view, government should be likewise obligated to take steps to protect SSDI (and the taxpayers who fund it) from the economic consequences of the dysfunctions, inadequacies and gaps in the upstream social structures and programs — because their failures end up on public benefit programs.

Government will make a major contribution to reducing demand on SSDI by:
(1) establishing policy that job loss/withdrawal from the workforce is a very unfortunate outcome of a health problem and should be avoided whenever possible,
(2) enabling all parties to see more clearly when it happens by requiring reporting of these events; and
(3) establishing consequences of some sort when involved organizations are non-responsive (negative incentives such as financial penalties, loss of privileges, or public exposure) or do take appropriate action (positive incentives such as credits, privileges, or favorable publicity).

This combination of outcomes visibility and accountability should then start to shift how parties in the private marketplace choose vendors and suppliers.

How will things look different when there IS real accountability for job loss?  

Implementing the broad range of actions recommended in the Establishing Accountability report will require a significant long-term effort because of their comprehensive, complex, and varied nature.  Taken as a whole, these actions have the potential to create truly transformational change.

Success will mean that more workers living with adult-onset chronic conditions and impairments (acquired disabilities) will be able to stay fully and productively engaged in their own personal, family, and community life; protect their household’s standard of living; remain economically self-sufficient contributors to their local area economy; and avoid dependency on government programs—which will in turn protect their future health and well-being and improve their children’s future prospects.  At the national level, success has the potential to stem the tide of declining labor force participation, lighten taxpayer burdens, and bolster the nation’s social fabric and the vitality of the economy.  All in all, the initiatives proposed make good use of limited government resources.

The ultimate success of the initiative will hinge on the ability of Federal policy leaders and supporters to create and sustain real multi-stakeholder buy-in and enthusiasm for achieving the future vision described in the paper.   A good next step is for the federal and state governments to decide whether and where to start.  It will take time and effort to achieve consensus among key stakeholders that this kind of initiative is necessary, timely, and deserves priority for person-power and funding.  Once that preliminary groundwork is laid, more detailed planning work can get underway.

Whoever you are, I hope you read the Establishing Accountability paper and agree that change and action is needed.  If my suggested recommendations spur you on to creative thinking, you do NOT need to wait for the government to act.  You can start factoring these issues into your decisions about who to collaborate with now.


May 16, 2016

New study: adherence to guidelines leads to better outcomes

One of the issues raised at the multi-stakeholder Work Comp Summit I attended in Dallas last week (more on that later), was this question:  “Are Treatment Protocols and Evidence-Based Guidelines a Benefit or a Burden?”  Evidence-based medicine (EBM for short) and evidence-based treatment guidelines have been controversial in some quarters, especially when they don’t support popular (and lucrative) treatments.  Skeptics have pointed to the lack of “real world” proof that following these guidelines actually does produce better outcomes.

As a near-miraculous coincidence, we have HARD FACTS to contribute to that discussion as of today. A landmark paper has just been published that will / should attract wide attention — particularly in the regulatory and commercial marketplaces.  The new study says it is describing the development of a methodology for assessing the impact of treatment guidelines — but in so doing it has produced the first tidbits of hard evidence that adhering to EBM treatment guidelines significantly improves outcomes of work-related injury claims, in terms of both medical cost and duration.

There’s an easy-to-read article about it entitled Study Supports Benefits of Evidence-Based Medicine in this week’s on-line Workers’ Comp Forum published by Risk & Insurance.  According to that article, the researchers believe this is the first scientific proof that consistently applied treatment guidelines are more effective in treating injured workers — when compared to non-evidence-based care. If you’re a details type, read the original article entitled A New Method of Assessing the Impact of Evidence-Based Medicine on Claim Outcomes.  It’s in this month’s issue of the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

To the methodologists and kvetchers among us – any comments on this merits of the methodology they used?  Do we have an opportunity to IMPROVE the methodology?  And just in case there are any advocates of EBM among us, anyone want to yell YAHOOOOOOO? I do!

The study was supported in part by AF Group, formerly Accident Fund Holdings Inc which owns a family of workers’ compensation companies and is itself a for-profit subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.  It was AF Group’s workers’ comp claim data that was analyzed using ODG’s treatment guidelines.

ACOEM membership includes a subscription to JOEM, so if you know an ACOEM member, ask them to get the article for you.   It may be simpler to purchase your own copy on JOEM’s website.    The authors are Hunt, Dan L. DO; Tower, Jack MS; Artuso, Ryan D. PhD; White, Jeffrey A. MS; Bilinski, Craig MS; Rademacher, James BA; Tao, Xuguang MD, PhD; Bernacki, Edward J. MD, MPH.   Dr. Bernacki works at both the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins University, and has done some superior research in the past on questions of real practical interest.  The full citation is JOEM: May 2016 – Volume 58 – Issue 5 – p 519–524 doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000000718.

I sure wish this study had been done based on ACOEM’s Occupational Medicine Practice Guidelines which are the clearly superior product from my (informed) point of view.  That’s the NEXT study that should be done.


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!


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.

Gap

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/


July 31, 2015

Tell us: Who should be helping workers with health problems keep their jobs?

The US Department of Labor (DOL) wants to engage YOU in dialogue (you employers, insurers, physicians/healthcare providers, managed care companies — and working age individuals whose jobs have been affected by new or changed health conditions.) The dialogue concerns some draft recommendations for Establishing Work and Full Participation in Life as ACCOUNTABLE Health Outcomes.

The recommendations are part of a larger report I have drafted.  It is focused on these questions:
1– How can we reduce the number of working adults who lose their jobs or leave the workforce after their ability to work has been disrupted by a health condition—and conversely, how can we increase the number who get the help they need to stay employed?
2– What will create widely-shared social agreement that preserving/restoring the ability to work and participate fully in life should be seen as KEY OUTCOMES of healthcare for the working age population?
3– Who should be helping working people KEEP THEIR JOBS after acquiring a new or changed disability?    Who should be held accountable when they needlessly LOSE THEIR JOBS?
4– How can that accountability be established—for real?

The DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) commissioned this paper.  Many ideas for how to accomplish those things emerged after interviewing about 20 experts in various fields and discussing these issues with a Policy Work Group within ODEP’s SAW/RTW Policy Collaborative.  Because the stay-at-work and return-to-work process is by nature a “team sport”, the reality is that SEVERAL parties will need to be held accountable.

The draft report actually makes more than 20 detailed recommendations, but for now, ODEP would like to get feedback from YOU on the 6 main ones.  This is a reality check, to see if we’re on the right track in your opinion.   I ENCOURAGE you to disagree, make corrections, or suggest things that are missing or would strengthen the proposal.   The purpose of this exercise is to IMPROVE the report – and increase the chances that it actually has a positive impact.  The ultimate goal is to help more people stay in the workforce, remain productive contributors, and enjoy the many benefits of economic self-sufficiency and full social participation.

You can look at the recommendations on ODEP’s “crowdsourcing” website even before you decide whether to vote/comment.  I hope you will.   See the invitation from ODEP below to get started.   Again, FEEL FREE to disagree, to point out mistakes, make additional suggestions, etc. etc.


From: Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor – Office of Disability Employment Policy
Sent: Wednesday, July 29, 2015 3:40 PM
Subject: ODEP’s Latest Online Dialogue Discusses Work as a Health Outcome

 ODEP epolicyworks masthead 2015-07-31

Second Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Online Dialogue:
Establishing Work and Full Participation as Accountable Health Outcomes

Do you have ideas on how to reduce the number of working adults who lose their jobs or leave the workforce after their ability to work has been disrupted by a health condition—and conversely, how to increase the number who get the help they need to stay employed? If so, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) needs to hear from you!

ODEP is hosting the second in a three-part series of important online dialogues, Establishing Work and Full Participation as Accountable Health Outcomes, to gather input on policy recommendations aimed at establishing work and full participation in life as accountable health outcomes. Through the use of an online crowdsourcing tool, interested stakeholders can provide feedback on these six draft policy recommendations.

Participation is easy. Just review the policy recommendations, register, then share your feedback.

Visit http://WorkAsHealthOutcome.ePolicyWorks.org/ before the dialogue closes on Friday, August 14th. If you have any questions, please contact ePolicyWorks@dol.gov.

Looking forward to your participation,
Jennifer Sheehy
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy


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.