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March 16, 2014

How to Optimize Nurse Case Management in Workers' Comp

Summary:

NCM must computerize and standardize its process and measure and report outcomes, just like any other business in today’s world. 

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Traditionally, in workers’ comp, nurse case management (NCM) services have been widely espoused yet misunderstood and underutilized. The reasons for underutilization are many. Tension between NCM and claims adjusters is one. Even though overburdened, adjusters often overlook the opportunity to refer to NCM.

Also to blame is the NCM process itself. In spite of professional certification for NCM, the process is poorly defined for those outside the nursing profession. More importantly, NCM has difficulty measuring and reporting proof of value.

Underlying issues

Continuing to do business as usual is not acceptable. NCM needs to address several issues to qualify as legitimate contributors. First, NCM needs to articulate its value. To do that, NCM must computerize and standardize its process and measure and report outcomes, just like any other business in today’s world.

Too often, computerization for NCM is relegated to adding nurses’ notes to the claim system. However, such notes cannot be analyzed to measure outcomes based on specific nursing initiatives. 

In most situations, an individual NCM interprets an issue, decides on an action and delivers the response. The organization’s medical management is thereby a subjective interpretation rather than a definable, quantifiable product. 

Granted, the NCM is a trained professional. But when the product is unstructured, variables in delivery cannot be measured or appreciated. A process that is different every time can never be adequately defined.

It's crucial to establish organizational standards about what conditions in claims require referral to NCM—without exception. This will remove the myriad decisions made or not made by claims adjusters to involve the NCM. The referral can be automated through electronic claims monitoring and notification. NCM takes action on the issue according to organizational protocol, and the claims adjustor is notified.

Measure

When the conditions in claims that lead to intervention by NCM are computerized and standardized, the effects can be measured. Apples can legitimately be compared with apples, not to oranges and tennis balls. Similar conditions in claims are noted and approached the same way every time, so the results can be validly measured.

Results in claims such as indemnity costs, time from DOI to claim closure or overall claim cost can be compared before and after NCM standardization. Comparisons can be made across different date ranges for similar injuries going forward to measure continued effectiveness and hone the process.

Measuring outcomes is the most essential aspect of the process. Value is disregarded unless it is defined, measured and reported.

For non-NCMs, the dots in medical management must be connected to see the picture. Describe what was done, why it was done and how it was done the same way for similar situations and in context with the organization's standards. Then report the outcome value. Establish a continuing value communication process.

NCM constituencies should be informed in advance of the process and outcome measurements. Define in advance how problems and issues are identified and handled and how results will be measured. Then proceed consistently.

Recognized NCM value

Even as things now stand, NCM's value is being recognized. American Airlines recently reported it is adding NCM to their staff and will refer all lost time claims. The company cited a pilot project where nurse interventions were documented and measured, proving their value in getting injured workers back to work. 

Christopher Flatt, workers’ compensation Center of Excellence leader for Marsh Inc., wrote in WorkCompWire (http://www.workcompwire.com/), “One option that employers should consider as part of an integrated approach to controlling workers’ compensation costs is formalized nurse case management. Taking actions to drive down medical expenses is an essential component to controlling workers’ compensation costs.”1

Industry research and corporate or professional wisdom regarding risky situations can supply the standardized indicators for referral to NCM. American Airlines uses the standard that all lost time claims should be referred to NCM. But there are many, sometimes more subtle, indicators of risk and cost in claims that can be identified early through computerized monitoring and referred for NCM intervention.

Another example of developing standard indicators for referral is based on industry research that shows certain comorbidities, such as diabetes, can increase claim duration and cost. These claims should also be referred to NCM. Yet another example is steering away from inappropriate medical providers who can profoundly increase costs. 

As a long-ago nurse and a longer-time medical systems designer and developer, I believe the solution lies in appropriate computerized system design. The elements need to be simple to implement, easy to use and consistently applied. Only then can NCM offer proof of value.

1 Christopher Flatt: The Case for Formalized Nurse Case Management