End the Dysfunction in Functional Exams

Fee-squeezing has killed quality. Have your workers' comp cases ever been determined by the results of functional exams?

Functional capacity exams (FCEs) are in dire need of quality standards. Employers who want better workers' compensation claim results must take the lead. The FCE is intended to objectively test a patient's thresholds of pain, strength and movement. An FCE should play a major role in things like qualifying a claimant to return to work, ascribing reasonable permanency awards, calculating objective settlement valuations, indicating malingerers, providing defense evidence and essentially helping you close cases. As I see it, the FCE has been under a quality assault because of fee-squeezing managed care schemes. Managed care means only steering work to those "in-network," which emphasizes use of the lowest-fee providers. The overriding value premise of “managed care” is fee reduction, not quality assurance. As such, the peripheral specialty of functional exams has gone unchecked. They have become a perfunctory step in a chain of litigation activities, conveniently extending an adjuster’s diary with the appearance of action. When was the last time your WC case turned on FCE results? When was the last time your defense counsel’s essential witness or deposition list included the FCE provider? The answer may escape you, just as has the missed opportunity to leverage and move churning cases. Quick Tip: Demand Quality FCE Standards and Expect Actionable FCE Results Institute FCE standards in your claim account service instructions. Craft them from the checklist to follow. Require that you or your WC coordinator pre-approve FCE referrals to ensure quality in the application and outcome expectations. Along with selecting a quality provider, you need to provide adequate medical history and other background while asking specific questions. When it comes to provider selection, apply this quality-question checklist: Who is performing the test and what is her certification? Demand licensed physical therapists, optimally with enhanced related certifications. Do not accept PT assistants, sports trainers, vocational counselors or others who are less qualified. Is modern computerized instrumentation used for validity? Do not accept manual systems, which involve subjectivity and simple gauge reading. For example: A manual hand-squeeze test shows pounds of squeeze strength, while modern testing measures isometric contraction and provides an actual “force curve” indicating effort, true point of muscle fatigue and pain. Simply stated, modern computerized systems can indicate real physical capacity while pointing out faking subjects. Will raw data be fed into appropriate computer applications for reliable objective results? Functional exams need to process individual body-part tests and things like coefficient of variance formulas to ascertain whole-body determinations such as “lifting capacity” or other job-specific activities. Calculating these aspects by hand, based on assumptions, is not reliable, and the results may crumble under legal cross-examination. Will heart rate and blood pressure be monitored during testing? This is essential to establishing consistency and overall patient effort. Will the process measure distracted testing? This is a specific technique whereby one test is cross-checked by the appearance of a separate test. For example, back-bending angles are first tested; later, a “straight leg raise” test is performed, which actually re-creates the back bending angles and can be compared with the thresholds of prior back-angle results. This is a critical part of establishing patient credibility. Will the results be admissible as strong evidence? Adherence to aforementioned aspects combined with early communication and input from defense counsel will strengthen evidence. In conclusion, employers must confront a status-quo claims service process to demand FCE standards. Agree to pay for higher-priced FCE providers if you can establish the appropriate quality level. Pick your cases wisely and use detailed oversight. The power of a good FCE will help you move cases.

Barry Thompson

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Barry Thompson

Barry Thompson is a 35-year-plus industry veteran. He founded Risk Acuity in 2002 as an independent consultancy focused on workers’ compensation. His expert perspective transcends status quo to build highly effective employer-centered programs.


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