Tag Archives: self-care

July 28, 2016

Video on tools & techniques to aid recovery & RTW

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

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

The video is now available on You Tube.  There are a few static-y and jumpy spots in the video, but I believe you will find the 60 minute conversation is worth your time.
Here’s the link to the YouTube version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAwJFMD0hBo

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

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

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

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


July 21, 2016

Pay attention to burden of treatment – and its impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABSTRACT

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

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

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

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


June 22, 2016

Psychiatrist says we should use food to treat anxiety and depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 9, 2016

Interview with Val Lougheed about recovery and her book Be Still

I recently asked Val Lougheed some questions about her book Be Still and her experience recovering from major trauma.  I have summarized our dialogue for you below.

At the time of the head-on automobile collision that nearly cost her life in 2003, Val was the owner and president of a successful rehabilitation company then called Northern Lights Canada, with a large staff in Ontario.  The accident caused a significant head injury, internal injuries, and multiple broken bones. She made a remarkable recovery and was left with subtle limitations. If you want to see Val in action, here’s a brief 4 minute YouTube video of her speaking at a conference. She was able to return to her company, and then found a new calling as a speaker and author on head injury and recovery.   Her book Be Still is a very personal set of vignettes from her hospitalization, her recovery and rehabilitation — and her reinvention of herself.

Val and I met in person a few years ago.  She has been a longtime valued contributor to the multi-disciplinary Work Fitness & Disability Roundtable email discussion group I run.  I recently read Be Still and recommend it to you.  Her book offers a very personal glimpse into the inner experience and outer realities of someone bound and determined to heal from devastating injuries.  She has been working on a second book to be released later this year.

DR J:     Why and when did you decide to write your book, Be Still?
VAL:      It was serendipity.  At the time of my accident, I had almost finished a Master’s Degree in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary. My advisor knew I had kept a journal while I was in the hospitals, and suggested that I write a narrative about my recovery for my thesis. She encouraged me to write only about my personal experience – no research, no literature references, no nothing. She said to write it so that when someone read it they would feel like they were going through the experience with me. As I analyzed my journals, the particular themes that stood out were trauma, pain, depression, acquired brain injury, narcotic pain killers, and methods of helping. Writing that paper was sort of like an exercise in do-it-yourself narrative therapy. I believe it augmented my recovery. And then I realized I could self-publish it as a book.

DR J:  What did you want your book to accomplish?
VAL:     I wrote it in hopes that it would provide some useful insights into the following questions:
1.    What does it mean to recover?
2.    What can I do, myself, to recover and return to a life that includes work?
3.    What can we do — as practitioners, as family, as friends — to aid recovery and  return to work?

I have realized that the meaning of my accident for me comes from writing, studying and speaking about recovery. So every time I speak, I feel like I owe my life to the people who are listening. Every time someone reads my book, it’s the same – I owe my life to them. To my complete delight, people respond to my talks with the same amount of passion (and tears) that I have in giving them. I am driven by the hope that my work can, in some small way, lead to the development of a more sensitive, effective and in-tune system within which practitioners and patients/clients can work together to achieve successful returns to life and work.

DR J:   You have some very personal experiences to share with us — but before we go there, do you have any advice for people now trying to recover in the “system”?
VAL:     Of course!  Here are my six best suggestions.

  1. Play your own game. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you are disabled and can’t work, or that you don’t want to work/be functional.
  2. Be curious about your recovery. Try to learn and understand everything about all aspects of your recovery. Read, talk to people, write a journal – whatever you like to do. This helps to put the ‘problems’ outside of you so you can look at them with some distance between you and them. This helps to preserve your inner self from being consumed by your problems.
  3. Functionality is everything. Be clear about what a functional life for you looks like, and work towards that. Don’t get sidetracked with standardized measurements and pronouncements, or with the need to prove that you are disabled. For sure, do whatever you have to do to get the money and help you need to recover — and play the game if necessary. But always continue working towards your own vision of personal functionality.
  4. Get good psychological help. If you can afford it, or convince the insurer to pay for it, find a good psychologist or counsellor who can support you in your efforts to recover. My preference is narrative therapy, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it helps you to separate yourself from your impairments/illnesses/problems and work on them from a distance, so that you don’t drown in them. Secondly, it helps you to re-story yourself and your life, which is so important when you are going through a ‘re-organization of self’.
  5. Look for ‘angels’. There are some people out there who are truly angels. They are the ones who are prepared to listen to you, respect you, understand you and even love you. If you find one, spend time with them, listen to them, and let them help you.
  6. Stand up for what you know you need. You will be called all sorts of names (malingerer, non-compliant, unmotivated, etc, etc). Do not listen to this. Be clear about what you need and then search out people who can help you in this regard.
  7. Never, ever, ever give up!

DR J:   What have you learned about how recovery really happens?
VAL:    I know now how recovery happens on different levels. There is the outside recovery – the physical aspect of it. That part can be measured, quantified and standardized (e.g., how long does it take a broken collar bone to heal and what will it look like?). Healthcare professionals assess and fix this kind of stuff.

But then there is the inside recovery, which I found to be a deeply personal experience. In reality, there is no difference between the physiological and the psychological – no split between the mind and the body. The combined whole person can’t be standardized, measured, quantified or partitioned (which is very frustrating for a disability benefits system based on those things).

Shortly after I woke up after the accident I realized that I had lost myself. By ‘myself’ I mean my spirit, my soul, my energy – whatever it was inside of me that was ‘me’ was gone. I realized that I was becoming someone else, but I had no control over the process. Very scary – like all of a sudden not knowing who or where you are….like floating with no ground under you and no net to catch you. In clinical terms, I would call it an ‘existential crisis’.

In Judith Herman’s excellent book, Trauma and Recovery, she contends traumatic life events can shatter the sense of self.   Since an event is traumatic if the involved person perceives it to be traumatic, there must a lot of people out there with shattered selves!  And typically, it’s not exclusively the doctors and other healthcare professionals who help put the inner person back together – it might be social workers, friends, family, a minister, a nun, or maybe even just a comment from a person in passing.

Beyond this, a good recovery requires an alignment of the stars so to speak, in terms of the presence of positive family and social support along with other facilitating factors (a safe place to live, relatively good general physical and mental health, enough money to manage, and so on) to realize progress.

DR J:   How did the knitting back together of Val, the whole person occur?
VAL:     Here’s one little story:  About four months after the accident, I was talking to Sister Brenda, a nun at St. John’s Rehab Hospital in Toronto where I was a patient.  I shared with her my sense of loss of self.  By virtue of her amazing listening and empathy skills, I suddenly found myself.  My “me” was all rolled up in a little ball in my stomach!  I thought back to the accident, and suddenly it made sense to me why that was where it was.  As the other car approached, I must have realized that I was not going to be able to escape a collision — so the me that is ‘me’ hid away. As soon as I found where “me” was, I knew that was the start of true recovery.  I believe this experience of a ‘split’ between the mind and the body is the result of trauma.

Coming back to life required major internal change, a re-organization of myself on a grand scale. It required me to have a strong sense of personal control, personal power, and raw courage to follow through with necessary (and often painful) treatments and rehabilitation activities.I needed to be around people an practitioners who could help me with these things.  In his amazing book, The Upside of Down Thomas Homer-Dixon describes the process of ‘”coming back” as a “novel and unpredictable recombination of elements”.  That is exactly what it felt like for me.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has my favourite definition of what rehabilitation is really all about. He says that “rehabilitation is the learning to live inside not only one’s body, however it is after an injury or illness, but inside one’s very being”.  That quote really resonates with me.

DR J:   Who and what helped or hindered your rehabilitation?
VAL:     When I think of who helped me most to come back to life, there was of course a literal village of wonderful doctors, nurses, physios, OT’s, psychologists, etc. etc. who helped put my body and my head back together.  But specific people and particular moments — both bad and good — stand out in my mind.

I felt very vulnerable all the time during my recovery – physically obviously, but also emotionally. I felt that anyone could hurt me so easily that it was very hard to trust anybody.  This issue of trust is a huge one, in my opinion, in terms of facilitating recovery. If I trusted someone, I loved them and would try my hardest to do whatever they asked. If I did not trust someone, I hated them because I felt like my life was being threatened by them, and I would do whatever I could to get away from them. This led me to define what trust meant for me…..

I trust (love, feel safe with, will try hard for) people who:
•    Listen to me
•    Understand me
•    Respect me
•    Are competent.

In terms of being a client in the disability benefits system, when trust, positive regard, respect, and so on were absent, I could sense it – like an animal instinct. If someone treated me like this, I would feel threatened, and become REALLY uncooperative (I couldn’t help myself!), and do everything in my power to get away from that person. This is a good example of what’s called avoidance behaviour in the world of neuroscience (Rock, 2008).  I think it is often mis-labeled as non-compliant, malingering, unmotivated, etc. etc. in the system.

When my personal experience of impairment was not taken into consideration, when my recovery was measured against published norms that did not reflect exactly where I was in time and space, when I was not trusted, when I was not understood or respected, I not only lost my physical and cognitive ability to function, I also lost my will to recover.

But on the other hand – I definitely needed the money that I got from the insurance company to support me and to pay for necessary therapies when I could not work. And of course, in order to secure such monies, I had to continually prove that I was still disabled, with on-going health care assessments.

But frankly, it’s hard to recover when you are having to prove you are disabled in order to get help. It casts you in a crazy world of damned if you are recovering (because then you lose your benefits) and damned if you aren’t (because then you lose your functional life). The contentious, confrontational and distrustful atmosphere within which this plays out only serves to make it all so very much worse.  This is the reality of the disability paradox that plagues the current system adn that is what I’m researching and writing about now.

DR J:   Thank you, Val Lougheed, for sharing your personal experience of a difficult but successful recovery with us.
VAL:     Thank you for the opportunity.


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 10, 2015

Some specifics: Our proposal for a Health & Work Service

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

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

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

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which the likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that a modest set of simple services—that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach—can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population.

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

Near-immediate assistance from a community-focused Health & Work Service will allow people with these kinds of common conditions to avoid the kind of adverse secondary consequences they too often experience today. Those consequences are usually not obvious until months or years later, after unfortunate things have happened. The unlucky ones have received sub-optimal health care, been left with under-treated or iatrogenic impairment,  become dependent on opioids, found themselves socially isolated, lost their jobs, withdrawn from the workforce, lost economic independence, and ended up on long-term disability benefits programs or SSDI in order to survive. Anticipatory programs that ensure the right things happen from the start and include early identification of those needing extra support are the simplest and most effective way to prevent later adverse secondary consequences of these conditions.

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

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

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

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

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

(e) — expedite and coordinate external medical, rehabilitative and other kinds of helping services, including referrals for specialized services as needed to address remediable obstacles in a variety of life domains;

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

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

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


October 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 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.