Tag Archives: system

September 27, 2017

Job loss due to medical care calendar vs. FMLA calendar

Extending medical leave beyond the FMLA period may be an UN-reasonable accommodation under the ADAAA, according to a recent decision of the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court wrote: “ADA is an anti-discrimination statue, not a medical-leave entitlement.” And it said that since the purpose of reasonable accommodation is to allow an employee to work, which a medical leave does not do, then a leave does not accomplish the law’s purpose. However, the EEOC opposes the position of the court, and is unlikely to change its view that a long-term leave IS a reasonable accommodation when it is: (a) of specific duration, (b) requested in advance, and (c) likely to result in the employee being able to perform essential job functions upon return.

ATTENTION ALL CLINICIANS and CLAIM PROFESSIONALS: Please notice this one key fact in the case before the court. A guy exhausted his 12 weeks of FMLA leave during the “conservative care” phase of treatment for his back pain. In fact, he had his back surgery on the LAST DAY of his FMLA leave — which was protecting his job!

We really have to think more about the intersection between the calendars of “evidence-based medical care” and job loss. For most of the common musculoskeletal problems (like straightforward back, knee, shoulder and ankle pain for example), the scientific evidence says that the doctor should begin by prescribing simple things like aspirin or motrin, ice packs, physical therapy, and exercise.  Unless there are clear signs of a potentially dangerous or progressive problem, the best thing is to wait for 6 weeks and give the patient’s body time to heal itself naturally.

But maybe we should be keeping our eye on the clock, and monitoring progress more actively during that 6 weeks.  When we see recovery not proceeding as hoped, we may need to ANTICIPATE the need for an orthopedic referral, make the appointment for that 6 week mark, and cancel it if things turn out better so it’s not needed.  If not, we may burn through several weeks before the specialist can be seen.

In my experience, it is more typical to see the initial treating clinician SLOWLY notice the passage of time and realize that conservative care hasn’t cut it.  Then they start talking to the patient about a referral to a specialist for consideration for surgery.  Then, when the surgeon sees the patient, they may talk about surgery and wait for the next appointment before requesting authorization from the payer.  They usually wait for a yes before scheduling the surgery — which is often some weeks in the future.   Maybe somebody ought to do a study of the weeks of time lost in this process.

Or maybe you have a better idea? How do we make sure that people’s FMLA clock doesn’t run out because of an ADMINISTRATIVE delays on OUR end, not medical ones on THEIR end? Our goal is to have them NOT lose their jobs – and right now I’m afraid we are really not paying enough attention to that critically important and NEGATIVE result of an injury/illness.

Read more about the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision here: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/ada-not-medical-leave-entitlement-seventh-circuit-declares


September 26, 2016

Two faulty beliefs about IMEs & impartial physicians

Patients and their advocates tend to be skeptical about independent medical opinions.   There are legitimate reasons to be concerned.  However, I want to point out two common but faulty beliefs that create UNNECESSARY distrust in this aspect of disability benefits and workers’ compensation claim management systems.  First, despite patients’ faith in their own doctors, treating physicians as a group are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information.  Second, although justice IS even-handed, impartial physicians should not find for both sides equally.

Based on my experience leading teams on three consulting projects that audited the quality of more than 1400 reports of independent medical evaluations and file reviews I definitely share MANY other concerns about the quality of the reports, the process by which they are procured, and the physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide them.  But these two particular issues are not among them. Read on to find out why.

FACT:  As a group, treating physicians are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information

First is the incorrect belief that the treating physician is the BEST place to turn for an “independent” opinion because they are highly trained professionals who are familiar with the patient’s case.   There are two main reasons why this is incorrect:

(a) There is considerable variability in the appropriateness and effectiveness of the care delivered by practicing physicians, and patients are not in a good position to assess it.  Evaluating appropriateness and effectiveness is admittedly a difficult and imperfect process, but the best way we know to do it is through the eyes of another physician who is equally or more expert in the matter at hand — and has no axe to grind and no financial stake in the outcome:  neither a friendly colleague nor a competitor.

(b) In medical school and residency, physicians are often told they should be “patient advocates” — but that instruction may not include a definition of advocating. (True for me and many others in physician audiences when I have asked about it.)  Patient advocacy sometimes turns into doing or saying exactly what the patient wants, not what is actually in the best interest of the patients’ long term health and well-being.  (I call this being a McDoctor.)  Particularly in today’s world with fierce competition between medical groups for patients and the use of “patient satisfaction scores” in calculating physician bonuses, that is true.  The data is clear:  treating physicians provide unnecessary antibiotics, pain medications, inappropriate treatments and are even willing to even shade the truth on reports in order to keep their patients happy.

The reason why arms-length or “third party” physicians are preferred as the source of opinions is to protect patients from harm from EITHER the “first party” (treating physician) OR the “second party” (the payer — which has an OBVIOUS business interest in controlling cost).  Judges, public policy people, and I get uncomfortable when the WAY the arms length physician is SELECTED is distorted by the interests of either the first party or second party.

FACT:   Impartial physicians’ opinions should not find for both sides equally

Second is the belief that “truly” impartial physicians should come down on the side of the patient vs. insurer half the time.  Or call it 50:50 for plaintiff vs. defense.  This belief is WRONG because cases selected for review or IME have been pre-selected by claims managers and case managers.   These professionals may not be healthcare professionals but because they see thousands of cases and become very familiar with the medical landscape, they ARE often more experienced OBSERVERS of the process of care than many physicians. They learn to recognize patterns of care that fit normal patterns, and care that is unusual.  These days, they are often expected to use evidence-based guidelines to identify outlier cases.  Those who focus on specific geographical areas come to see which doctors get patients better and which ones don’t.

The VAST MAJORITY of the time, there is no need / no reason to refer a case for independent review.  The treating physician IS doing the right thing;  the diagnoses, prescribed treatment, and causation determination (if work-related) DO appear reasonable and appropriate.   If the claims managers/ case managers see no problems or have no questions, they don’t refer the case for outside review.  If it aint busted, why fix it?

So as a rule of thumb, you can assume that some feature or another in ALMOST EVERY case being sent to review has RAISED QUESTIONS in the mind of an experienced observer of the care process.  The reason WHY the case is REFERRED is because that observer has only a very superficial knowledge of medicine.  They need an adviser — an impartial and expert physician who can evaluate the clinical facts and context and then either CONFIRM that the treating physician is doing the right thing or VALIDATE the claims/case manager’s concerns.

When claims/case managers are doing a good job selecting cases for referral, we SHOULD expect that MOST of the decisions will favor the insurer / defense. The more expert the claim/case managers are, the MORE LIKELY the independent physicians will agree — because the claims/case managers are accurately detecting real problems and concerns.

(By the way, a similar ratio seems to apply in the court system.   A judge once told me that MOST defendants ARE guilty – because the prosecutors don’t want to waste their time and public funds bringing cases to trial if they think the defendant is innocent – or if they simply think they will lose.    A perfect example  of this pragmatism is the FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton.  The Director made it clear that they didn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money on a case in which they wouldn’t be able to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)

Consider this:  If you are a treating physician who FREQUENTLY ends up with your care plans rejected by claims managers and utilization review, consider the possibility that YOU stick out.  Your care patterns may be more unusual than you realize.  Your outcomes may be worse than your colleagues’.

Sadly, some physicians discredit input from independent experts in front of patients.  They THINK they are advocating for their patient — on a social justice crusade, but end up harming their patient instead — by teaching them they have been wronged, are a victim of “the system,” and a helpless pawn.  This message:

  • increases distrust, resentment and anger (which in turn worsens symptoms);
  • encourages passivity rather than problem-solving (which in turn increases the likelihood of job loss, permanent withdrawal from the workforce, and a future of poverty on disability benefits).

A former president of the Oregon Medical Association said he counsels patients this way:  “Your two most important treasures are your health and your job. And  I am here to help you protect both of them.”  Healthcare practitioners really ought to do everything they can help their patients find a successful way out of these predicaments, instead of allowing them to believe they are trapped.  The “system” is not designed to solve their life predicament for them — they may have to do it themselves.  The physicians’ care plans should consist of those treatments known to restore function and work ability most rapidly.  Physicians should encourage their patients to tell their employer they want find a way to stay productive and keep their jobs.  And if the employer won’t support them, physicians should counsel their patients to try to find a new job quickly — even if it’s temporary or they have to make a change to the kind of work they do.

Adapting to loss is a key part of recovery.   When I was treating patients, I could tell they were going to be OK when they said with pride “I’ve figured out how to work around it, and life is getting back on track.”


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.

July 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


June 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


March 7, 2016

Manifesto – Preventing Needless Work Disability (DRAFT)

I’ve tried to squeeze all the main ideas of the work disability prevention (WDP) model into one page (see below). The model has matured over the last several years as key dynamics have become more apparent.  I’m curious to hear your reaction to this new version.

After promoting the WDP model in the private sector for a long time, I started introducing it to the Federal / State disability sector in 2011.  Now seems like the right time to get a compelling and very succinct document circulating so it gets in front of many more eyes  – for example, lots of eyes on Capitol Hill and in regulation-creating / law-making (sausage making) circles.

The members of the Work Fitness & Disability Roundtable are also helping me craft a 3 or 4 bullet “sound bite.”  However, in my view it will take more than that to get influencers and decision-makers to decide to explore these issues further. They need a quick summary of WHAT the problem is, WHY things look the way they do, and WHAT might be possible instead — but just a bit.  Thus, this one-pager.

I’m not yet clear what to do with this draft – other than to post it here and solicit your comments.   Am also hoping to get your ideas for the best organization to issue and disseminate a manifesto like this — so it has the maximum impact.  What are the chances of it going viral?  Please leave a comment below or email me your ideas and suggested revisions.

Work Disability Prevention Manifesto (DRAFT)

  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to avoiding loss of life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome because worklessness is harmful to people’s health as well as their personal, family, social, and economic well-being.
  • A new medical problem that threatens the ability to continue earning a living is a big challenge – a life crisis that must be addressed. Most people are unprepared, never having faced this double-headed predicament before. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common health problems, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty because the right things tend to happen during the first few days or weeks.
  • However, many of the prolonged work disability cases in both private and public sector sickness programs, disability benefits, and workers’ compensation programs began as very common health problems (for example musculo-skeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unusually poor outcomes.
  • Unusually poor outcomes are frequently due to the interplay of sub-optimal health care and non-medical factors. Without a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the healthcare and benefits systems. Remediable issues in the situation are overlooked and not addressed. Incentive alignment among the involved parties is poor.
  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. And with every passing day away from work, the odds are worsening that people will ever return to work. After a while, they start to see themselves as too disabled to work.
  • Unlucky people lose their job and do not find a new one. They leave the workforce and eke by on disability benefits, in poverty, and vulnerable to its detrimental effects.
  • Today, most professionals typically involved in these situations (healthcare professionals, employers, and benefits handlers) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unusually poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and the health care and other services that can optimize function and protect jobs.
  • When work disruption begins, it is both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator assist the individual, their treating physician, and their employer with communications, as well as focus everyone’s attention on restoring function, accommodating irrevocable losses, and making plans for how to keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • Urgent priority should be given to establishing accountability for work disability and job loss as well as building nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services that help people stay at work or return to work – just in time, when needed.
  • Helping more people with medical problems to keep their jobs or find new ones in a timely manner will benefit them and their families, and will benefit our society as a whole.

March 7, 2016


November 18, 2015

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

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

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

SSDI Solutions Initiative

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

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

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

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

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


October 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Pic of Mat Infant Mortality rates 2015-10-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 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!