Tag Archives: Workers’ Comp

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.”


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 16, 2016

New study: adherence to guidelines leads to better outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 26, 2015

Medical “red herrings” lead to over-treatment & leave patients suffering

When I give a presentation, my goal is to give a gift to the listeners — some new information, perspective, or insight they might not have had before.  I spend time beforehand, imagining how they see the topic now, what they might be thinking, and how I should structure my talk to take them from “here” to “there.”

It’s very gratifying when they send signals that they “got it.”   The funnest [sic] part about public speaking is seeing people’s eyes light up or heads nod as I speak, or having them come up all excited to talk to me afterwards, or when they send an email — or when they write about what they heard.  It’s particularly graifying when the article a reporter writes matches up with what I hoped they would notice.  All those things were true last week when Keith Rosenblum (a senior risk consultant from Lockton), Dr. David Ross (a neurologist and developer of the NP3 diagnostic testing method) and I gave a presentation at the SIIA (Self-Insurance Institute of America) conference last week.  Our audience was a small group of professionals who work for companies (employers) that are self-insured for workers’ compensation.  Our topic was “How Medical Red Herrings Drive Poor Outcomes and Big Losses— and What You Can Do to Stop Them” .

And in particular, here’s a shout-out to reporter Robert Teachout (wow, a rhyme!) for really GETTING what we were trying to get across in our session.   Robert’s article appeared last Friday in HR Compliance Expert.

Dr. Ross taught the audience about the latest definition from pain experts on the essential nature of pain:  it is an EXPERIENCE put together by the brain after it analyzes and interprets many things.  Pain is NOT a sensation in the body.  He also described why and how “objective findings” on MRI often lead doctors to over-diagnose structural spine problems and provide over-aggressive treatments — because the actual source of the pain lies in soft tissues or the brain itself.

My job in the session was to point out this obvious but often overlooked fact:  doing surgery on the wrong problem is not going to make the patient’s pain and distress go away.  And I introduced the audience to the idea that there are other very common causes of prolonged back pain, distress and disability (summarized as biopsychosocioeconomic (BPSE – bipsee) factors) that may mimic or worsen noxious sensations coming from the spine.  Screening for and dealing with easy-to-treat BPSE factors BEFORE resorting to aggressive testing and treatment makes more sense than waiting until AFTER you’ve subjected the patient to those potentially harmful things.  That’s because MRIs, opioids, injections, and surgeries increase the patient’s certainty that their problem is in their spine while at the same time failing to relieve their pain AND causing side-effects and additional problems.    Keith recommended that employers / claim organizations start screening for the presence of a variety of BPSE factors — and get them addressed — BEFORE aggressive, potentially destructive and definitely expensive treatment even begins.  Screening methods can include simple things like questionnaires, or fancy things like the NP3 testing methods.

In addition, even when surgery IS needed, it makes sense to screen for complicating BPSE issues and address them BEFORE surgery as well as during recuperation — because having clear indications for surgery and being a good surgical candidate doesn’t mean a person is free of the kind of BPSE issues that reduce the likelihood of a good recovery.

I sent Robert, the reporter, a compliment via email that read:  “Robert, you did a remarkable job of capturing the salient facts, important implications, and key take home messages from our session.”  I hope you will read his article — and that you’ll send him a note if you found it informative or helpful


October 22, 2015

Star rankings for doctors who deliver better outcomes in workers’ comp

I was in the audience for a presentation on “outcomes based networks” in workers’ compensation while at the SIIA conference this week (Self-Insurance Institute of America) in Washington DC.   The two presenters were from Sedgwick (which I believe is now by far the largest workers’ comp claims administrator [claims payer] in the country — servicing mostly self-insured employers) and from Multi-Plan (a huge PPO).

The bottom line is that Sedgwick is now putting INDIVIDUAL treating physicians into ranks, from 5 stars (most preferred) all the way down to 1 star (least preferred) .  HOWEVER, many physicians cannot be ranked because the “n” (number of cases for which the payers have data) is too small to analyze with any statistical confidence at all.  The star ratings are NOT generally shared with the physicians — but I bet doctors who know the rankings exist can ask pointed questions about where they stand.

The two speakers have been deeply involved in developing the data sets and metrics to assess physician performance.  They have also been responsible for packaging that information so people who need to know where to send patients can quickly find the best available nearby doctors.  (I am an informed listener on this topic, having developed a physician “report card” myself with less sophisticated data tools in the late 1990’s.)

The presentations were fascinating, both because of what the speakers DID say, as well as what they DIDN’T say.  The four most important things they DID say (if I heard correctly) were that:
•    Sedgwick’s clients, claims adjusters, and case managers who are making referrals / recommending physicians to care for work-related injuries now have access to a user-friendly website that automatically lists doctors within certain geographies IN ORDER OF STAR RANKING (though the ranking itself is not displayed).  Reality check:  Some locations simply don’t HAVE any super-top-ranked providers.
•    Employers who are able to get most or all of their employees to 4 or 5 star doctors have DRAMATICALLY BETTER RESULTS in terms of medical/functional outcomes, disability duration and cost, including higher patient satisfaction/lower litigation rates.   These employers are seeing roughly 15-20% improvement in the parameters of interest.  I heard later that these are mostly California results.
•    The highly ranked doctors are happy to get the referrals and have NOT been asking to be compensated better when it has been confirmed that they are the best.  The highly ranked doctors also tend to be the ones who do a lot of work comp — so they are attuned to the critical issues that need to be managed.  Personally, I think those who DO deliver the best results SHOULD thrive and prosper as a result — not just get more patient volume.  MANY doctors already feel maxed out!
•    A nice endorsement for occupational medicine specialists in general.  The speakers consider “occ docs” as “primary treating” providers (along with urgent care, internists and family practitioners) rather than as specialists (e.g. orthopedists, pain management).  In general, occ docs rank high.  The speakers said it was because of our specialty’s philosophy of care that puts high priority on employing evidence-based techniques for medical treatment and preventing needless work disability in order to optimize patient outcomes and control total episode costs. They said it’s not a sure shot — there are SOME duds in our specialty — but both speakers agreed that as a rule, occ med physicians are among the best.  (They only mentioned occ med because I specifically asked the question –and that was because I suspected what the answer would be –and wanted the audience to hear it!)

The three most important things I DIDN’T hear the speakers say were:
•    How OFTEN the employers/adjusters/case managers are ACTUALLY choosing docs based on rankings.
•    What FRACTION of all doctors in any given geography they actually are ABLE to rank.  (In other words, how many cases have Sedgwick’s employer clients actually been SENDING to each doctor.).  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s less than 25% of the doctors.  I suspect the unranked doctors’ names are NOT presented first.
•    How many cases the doctor has to have treated before ranking them makes sense or is fair. Very few payers are going to have the volume of information available that Sedgwick and Multi-Plan do.  Buyer beware:  TPAs and networks that want to keep up with the Joneses may CLAIM to have ranked providers — but it takes a large number of cases AND considerable statistical sophistication to do this ranking stuff accurately and fairly.   One catastrophic injury could make even a great physician look bad without appropriate adjustment.   The speakers both acknowledged that getting accurate data and analyzing it in a fair manner has been a big challenge, and that their capabilities for doing so have improved rapidly over the last 5 years.

This IS the wave of the future.  Physicians who discover they are low ranked should find out why — and do their level best not to be defensive, but rather learn and improve from the experience.  Buyers of /payers for services absolutely do have the right — if not the duty — to select suppliers based on the best information at hand about who will meet their legitimate needs.   And physicians are suppliers in their eyes.

Sedgwick got started building their Outcomes Based Networks after participating in a Cornerstone Conversation co-hosted by the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards & Commissions (IAIABC).  This was a four-way conversation among a small group of key stakeholders:  ACOEM leaders, large payers, large employers, and state regulators on what needs to happen in order to improve access to high quality healthcare and improve outcomes for injured workers, and to reduce unnecessary costs for employers and payers.  A joint project undertaken by ACOEM and IAIABC as a result of that meeting was the production of a Guide to High Value Physician Services in Workers’ Compensation.  You may find the observations and suggestions made in this succinct document helpful — whether you are a chooser, a recommender, a payer or a physician-supplier of medical care services.


October 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!


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!