The Texas workers’ compensation system is again the center of national discussion. Republican House Representatives in Louisiana are proposing the adoption of the binary drug list that Texas made popular resulting from the material reduction in cost and overall decrease of prescription drugs made available to injured workers in the state. However, employee and patient advocates struggle with correlating lower costs and medication prescriptions to a healthier workforce. Denying medical care, without the support of quality scientific evidence, does not guarantee better care and therefore may not result in overall health outcomes.
Texas Commissioner Ryan Brennan submitted a write up published by WorkCompCentral (subscription is required) encouraging the use of the Texas-model formulary by other jurisdictions. While the success of cost savings and reduced medication prescriptions to injured workers in the state is well documented, Commissioner Brennan’s claim that the drug list is responsible for the state’s improvements in return-to-work may not be as cut and dry. The dual adoption of individual commercial return-to-work and treatment guidelines in the state sets a stage worthy of scientific discourse and dramatic findings of deranged recommendations.
Texas’ Choice for Return-To-Work Standards
Texas’ legislated mandate to use return-to-work guidelines is an element of their workers’ compensation system that is usually discussed out of context, or is all together ignored. Leading up to the passage of House Bill 7, which includes the requirement that the Texas DWC adopt return-to-work guidelines in 2005, the state completed a thorough analysis of both ODG, providers of the Texas treatment guidelines and binary drug list, and Reed Group’s Medical Disability Advisor, now MDGuidelines. The state found the Medical Disability Advisor content to be more reliable and based on actual observed claims data wholly tagged by ICD codes and moved forward with adopting the content source to guide return-to-work decisions for injured workers in the state.
Commemorated in the Division of Workers’ Compensation Biennial Report to the 85th Texas Legislature, signed by Commissioner Brennan, Texas’ return-to-work outcomes are driven by the legislative reforms focusing on returning employees to work such as the return-to-work guidelines, return-to-work reimbursement program for employers, improvements in return-to-work outreach efforts, and other return-to-work specific programs. The report also correlates the rebound in return-to-work rates to the state’s economy in 2012 and 2013.
This information is critically important as state regulators and legislators reference the popular report Impact of a Texas-Like Formulary in other States by the Workers Compensation Research Institute and attempt to replicate outcomes experienced in the Texas system. The improvement in duration of disability and return-to-work is not the product of a binary drug list rather a result of a very comprehensive return-to-work effort mandated through legislative reform.
The following is an excerpt from the biennial report available online:
“Not only has the percentage of injured employees who returned to work and remained employed improved since the 2005 legislative reforms, but the amount of time the average injured employee who received TIBs [Temporary Income Benefits] is off work after an injury also decreased from a median of 28‐29 days in 2004‐2005 to 19 days in 2013. The reduction in the number of days off work per claim not only allows employers to quickly restore productivity levels after a work-related injury, it also allows injured employees to regain their wage-earning capacity quicker, helping them avoid severe economic losses as a result of a work-related injury.”
ODG Recommends Return-To-Work for SIDS & Other Pediatric Conditions
ODG claims to have a comprehensive data consortium undergirding its return-to-work guidelines data set as well. So why did Texas choose the Medical Disability Advisor over ODG? The publisher does not describe established standards for exclusion, fails to provide information about diversity with regard to industry or geographic location, and it cites the use of public databases (i.e., CDC NHIS and OSHA) where ICD codes are likely questionable or unavailable.
ODG also asserts its comprehensive guidelines cover every reportable condition and procedure, including over 10,000 ICD-9 codes, 65,000 ICD-10 codes, and 11,000 CPT procedure codes. Rather than screening these codes and providing information about conditions that affect working-age individuals, ODG’s website provides return-to-work summary guidelines for conditions not relevant to the working population:
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (ICD-9 code 798.0)
- Instantaneous Death (ICD-9 code 798.1)
- Fussy Infant/Baby (ICD-9 code 780.91)
- Infant Botulism (ICD-9 code 040.41).
Oddly, a search of ODG’s website using the term “infant” returns numerous conditions for which disability duration data does not exist and return-to-work guidelines are all together inappropriate. These recommendations call into question the source(s) of the numbers provided in the summary guidelines tables.
There is no doubt Texas made the right decision to adopt the Medical Disability Advisor, now MDGuidelines, as its standard for return-to-work over the ODG return-to-work content. The outcomes are irrefutable and a clear result of legislative reforms from 2005, not the savings-focused binary drug list made popular by the state.
However, the realization that the same entity that defines treatment standards for injured workers in Texas also publishes outlandish return-to-work guidance for deceased infants, should prompt severe concern for the quality of the science undergirding every recommendation stemming from the ODG library – treatment and return to work guidelines and drug formulary.
This prompts the question: Do the ODG treatment guidelines and drug formulary meet the definition of evidence-based medicine in the Texas Labor Code?
Texas Labor Code, Section 401.011 (18-a)
“Evidence-based medicine” [EBM] means the use of the current best quality scientific and medical evidence formulated from credible scientific studies, including peer reviewed medical literature and other currently scientifically based texts, and treatment and practice guidelines in making decisions about the care of individual patients.”
The labor code specifies “the use of current best quality scientific and medical evidence formulated from credible scientific studies.” While the State’s definition of EBM is not all together complete, the verbiage indicates the need for the content source to incorporate a transparent systematic review process.
Systematic review ensures the use of the “best” scientific evidence from “credible” sources; it is a core element of evidence-based medicine.
Good-working Systematic Review
As an example, the development of guidelines from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) utilizes Cochrane systematic reviews, in addition to other scientific systematic reviews that meet or exceed the Institute of Medicine’s (now known as the Academy of Medicine) Committee on Standards for Systematic Reviews of Comparative Effectiveness Research. The ACOEM Guidelines rely on systematic reviews conducted in accordance with the highest standards to provide current guidance on the relevant clinical questions.
Here is how it works: The Research Team conducts exhaustive systematic literature reviews for each guideline topic, and/or research question. In order to identify all high- and moderate-quality original research studies, the literature search is broad and comprehensive.
ACOEM searches PubMed, CINAHL, Cochrane Central Registry of Controlled Trials, and Scopus for primary sources of original research. ACOEM also conducts extensive supplementary searches using review articles, systematic reviews, and reference lists of the included and excluded studies. It searches other databases likely to contain references of high quality medical literature, including Google Scholar to identify potential quality, impactful literature that includes the grey literature.
Search strategies and methods are recorded in detail, including specific databases, search terms, number of studies found (e.g., regarding treatment efficacy searches including RCTs and crossover trials). A Search Results section, in paragraph form, is also included as a footnote for each evidence table.
- The Search Results section includes:
- Databases searched (that there were no limits on publication dates, limited to English language)
- Search terms used
- Number of studies found from all the databases searched
- Total number of articles screened
– number meeting inclusion and exclusion criteria
– number critically appraised
- Total number of studies included of high or moderate quality.
Also identified in tables, are studies of low quality.
In formulating the final recommendations, the numbers of studies and the strength of those studies, are all included in summary statements under the “Rationale for Recommendation” section.
The US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) Verdict on Texas’ Treatment Guidelines
In June of 2016, Mary Nix, AHRQ Health Science Administrator, stated in a WorkCompCentral interview, “Work Loss Data Institute [publisher of the Texas treatment guidelines a.k.a. Official Disability Guidelines/ODG] didn’t fully explain how it selected studies for its evidence-based review, including the number of studies identified, the number of studies evaluated, and a summary of inclusion and exclusion criteria. Another Requirement WLDI didn’t meet was to synthesize evidence from the selected studies in a detailed description or evidence table.”
In a separate interview with Business Insurance during the same month in 2016, Nix stated, “We were not able to … assure that the systematic evidence review was conducted for each of the topics that they cover in the ODGs”.
The following is a list of the types of evidence reviewed by ODG as documented in their methodology document available on line:
- Systematic Review/Meta-Analysis
- Controlled Trial – Randomized (RCT) or Controlled
- Cohort Study – Prospective or Retrospective
- Case Control Series
- Unstructured Review
- Nationally Recognized Treatment Guideline (from guidelines.gov)
- State Treatment Guideline
- Other Treatment Guideline
- Conference Proceedings/Presentation Slides
- Case Reports and Descriptions
None of the “Other” materials reviewed and used by ODG meet the selection criteria for inclusion of any methodology literature-scoring model.
Recommendations for medical care should not be created based on single studies, or sources. Rather, recommendations should be based on the preponderance of evidence systemically gathered, reviewed, graded, summarized and evaluated. These steps are important to ensure the process is reproducible and the recommendations, when established, are valid and supported by the best quality scientific evidence meeting inclusion criteria from credible scientific studies.
The influence of Texas’ return to work standards on outcomes cannot be more apparent. While the evidence that the content underpinning their treatment standards do not meet their Labor Code’s definition of evidence-based medicine is overwhelming. It is a strange case indeed, when states such as Louisiana are specifically seeking to replicate the adoption of tools proven to have no scientific merit in hopes of achieving outcomes driven by sources and initiatives unique to Texas.