Why Standards Matter

I had the privilege of attending the AASCIF conference for the first time, hosted in Oklahoma City this year. I was honored to have so many in the state compensation insurance fund community express support of our organization’s efforts to elevate evidence-based medicine (EBM) and advocate for the improvement of the quality of medical care to injured workers.

One conversation left a lasting impression. A well-known workers’ compensation veteran verbalized discomfort with some of my topical write-ups on EBM, trustworthy clinical guidelines, and my willingness to name certain commercial guidelines publishers in hopes of encouraging accountability. They echoed the conflict-free mantra, “There is enough room for all EBM treatment guidelines in workers’ compensation.”

A thought immediately consumed me:  My point of view is based on standards that are not defined by me, or my employer (also a commercial guidelines publisher), but standards that were developed independently by a non-interested not for profit entity at the request of the U.S. Congress looking to establish best methods used in developing clinical practice guidelines. The goal was to ensure such guidelines have information on approaches that are objective, transparent, scientifically valid, and consistent – the ideal basis of accountability for the clinical guidelines industry.

What is at Stake?

The statistics are sobering. Treating providers experience challenges in the clinic. A 10-year study conducted by a medical consultation firm found that nearly a fifth (~21%) of medical diagnoses in workers’ compensation claims involve errors costing the injured worker prolonged disability and household financial distress.

Workers’ compensation only covers a portion of the earned income and there is usually a ceiling, typically 66% of pre-tax earnings up to the state’s average weekly wage. Lost time from work for the injured worker due to injury or illness means loss of income. According to a study by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (2015), injured workers with less than 3 months of lost time lose an average of 3.5% of earning capacity over a 10-year period. Conversely, lost time of 3 to 12 months produces losses of income of approximately 11.6%; 28% loss in earnings is experienced after a 3-year absence due to workplace injury or illness.

Another study published in January 2017 looked at ~1.9 million short-term disability and workers’ compensation claims investigating for absences where prescribed opioids were contrary to a leading EBM drug formulary’s recommendations. The study estimated 57,000 (~3%) claims were found to have had an opioid prescribed that was either moderately or strongly not recommended in the formulary. The study also discovered approximately 133,000 (~7%) claims where prescribed opioids were contrary to the formulary recommendations for disorders of the peripheral nervous system including ulnar nerve lesions and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The challenges experienced in the care and claim continuum are plentiful and very difficult to navigate. Employees, employers, insurers, and medical providers deserve content measured and deemed trustworthy according to non-bias standards to guide injured workers through these challenges and on to recovery.

Thought-Leaders Stand Up

With the deep knowledge base and hands on experience of how quickly a workers’ compensation claim can go into free fall toward catastrophic health and recovery outcomes for the injured worker, why aren’t more “thought-leaders” taking a closer look at the status quo to identify inadvertent, or unintended, consequences and voice opportunities for improvement in their respective areas of expertise? Why is accountability viewed as a negative for industry report and the cost to the individual worker is almost intentionally ignored?

There may be enough room for all EBM treatment guidelines in workers’ compensation. However, there should never be room for vendors to profit from poorly constructed products that are dangerous to the well-being of injured workers and subsequently cost employers a lot more time and money.

Leading “comp-sters” have a duty to encourage accountability in the spirit of preserving the heart of the Grand Bargain, where the employee and the employer are center of the discussion. In cases where benefits and quality of medical care suffer from intendedshortcuts, or vendors falsely representing the basis of their products, accountability should not be viewed as bad for the industry rather it should be viewed through the eyes of an injured worker trusting they will get better.

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