Tag Archives: carpal tunnel syndrome

What Happens When Big Firms Opt Out?

A 74-page study released on March 18, 2016, covers 15 large, multi-state employers that provided their Texas employees with customized occupational injury benefits in lieu of workers’ compensation coverage between 1998 and 2010. This is Professor Morantz’s second research study on Texas “nonsubscription” (also known as the Texas “option” to workers’ compensation).

The new report is found here.

Major findings:

1. Option programs paid better wage replacement benefits than workers’ comp programs did.
2. The frequency of severe, traumatic employee injury claims was cut in half.
3. The percentage of employees disabled dropped by a third.
4. Employer costs were cut in half.
5. Coverage exclusions had minimal impact on cost savings.
6. Negligence liability exposure gave incentives to option employers to invest in safety.
7. As large Texas employers elected the option, workers’ compensation costs dropped.

In the study, Morantz stated all the study participants “offered employees private plans whose benefits roughly resembled (yet also differed from) those available through workers’ compensation.” She said, “Some ubiquitous features of private plans—such as first-day coverage of lost earnings  and wage replacement rates that are not capped by the state’s average weekly wage—are more favorable to injured workers than workers’ compensation.”

See Also: Texas Work Comp: Rising Above Critics

Morantz expressed concern in her study because past studies have confirmed the existence of two moral hazard effects:

  1. “Risk-bearing” moral hazard predicts employees will take more risks on the job as benefit levels increase; and
  2. “Claims-reporting” moral hazard refers to the expectation that a worker will be more likely to file an injury claim (including for a feigned or off-the-job injury) as benefit levels increase.

The study says: “Consistent with the existence of both moral hazard, nearly all studies have found that increasing benefits or shortening waiting periods increases the frequency, cost and duration of claims.”

Fewer Traumatic Claims and Lower Costs

In spite of this historic research on injury benefit improvements, Morantz found:

  • Frequency of severe, traumatic injury claims declines by about 47% under the Texas option;
  • Serious claims involving replacement of lost wages are about 33% less common in the option environment;
  • Employer costs per claim fell by 49% under the option;
  • Employer costs per worker hour fell by about 44%; and
  • Although the fall in wage-replacement costs is larger in percentage terms, the decline in medical costs was equally consequential.

Coverage Exclusions Have Minimal Impact.

The option injury benefit plans studied all contain:

  1. Exclusions (non-coverage) for permanent partial disabilities;
  2. Exclusions for certain diseases (such as any caused by mold, fungi, pollen or asbestos) and some non-traumatic injuries (such as non-inguinal hernias, cumulative trauma if the employee has worked less than 180 days, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia),
  3. Caps on total benefits; and
  4. An exclusion for chiropractic care.

Morantz found these exclusions from benefit coverage account for little of the estimated cost savings, writing, “Even when all four factors are accounted for, [the Texas option] is still predicted to lower total cost per worker hour by more than 35%.”

Benefit Enhancements and Liability Exposure Lead to Safety Improvements

Morantz mentioned a prior research finding that a rise in benefits can spur employers to invest more heavily in safety. Also, the study says the significantly lower frequency of severe, traumatic accident claims “provides strong evidence for a real safety effect, which is precisely what economic theory would lead one to expect. [Texas option employers] are, at least in theory, internalizing all of the costs associated with workplace accidents (including tort liability), which should induce them to invest more in safety-enhancing technologies.” The negligence liability exposure for employers that elect the Texas option “may prove costly in exceptional cases” and “may strengthen their incentives to implement costly safety improvements” which, in turn, offsets the above moral hazard effects.

Grounds for Denying or Terminating Benefits

Morantz found the majority of private plans include more grounds for denying claims or terminating benefits in particular cases than are commonly found in workers’ compensation. These provisions focus on employee accountability just before or after the injury takes place and on the nature of the injury. (Those provisions are commonly subject to a “good cause” exception that must be administered by a fiduciary under ERISA in the best interests of the injured worker.)

Impact of Employment Status

Contrary to option critics’ claims that all injury benefits cease upon any termination of employment, Morantz found that medical benefits continue unless the employee is fired for gross misconduct. She also found that option plans commonly do not terminate wage-replacement benefits if an employee is laid off, but such benefits do cease if the employee voluntarily quits or is fired for other reasons. Only one study participant’s plan reserved the right to terminate wage-replacement benefits if the employee was fired for any reason at all.

See Also: What Schrodinger Says on Opt-Out

Retaliatory Discharge Claims 

Morantz noted that the Texas’ Workers’ Compensation Act protects employees who file workers’ compensation claims from retaliatory discharge but that employees covered by option programs enjoy no similar protection under state law. However, she also noted the anti-discrimination/anti-retaliation claim available to workers under Section 510 of ERISA.

Drop in Texas Workers’ Compensation Rates as Large Employers Moved to the Option

Although very small firms (those with one to four employees) have always been disproportionately likely to forgo participation in Texas workers’ compensation, Morantz noted that substantial numbers of very large employers (those employing at least 500 workers) began doing so around the turn of the millennium. In 2001, Texas had among the highest reported cost-per-claim among the 14 states included in the annual Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) cost benchmarking study. Since then, both medical costs and indemnity payments per claim under Texas workers’ compensation have plummeted.

Need for More Study

Morantz concluded there is an urgent need for further analysis of the economic and distributional effects of workers’ compensation systems co-existing with privately provided forms of occupational injury insurance. This includes the need to further (1) identify which specific characteristics of private plans are producing the majority of cost savings, (2) study potential cost-shifting to government programs or group health plans and (3) consider differences between option programs sponsored by small-, medium- and large-sized employers.

Unnecessary Surgery: When Will It End?

Unnecessary surgery: When is it going to end? Not any time soon, unless a documented and proven approach is used by health benefit plan sponsors.

I began my healthcare career 35 years ago when, as a graduate student at Columbia University School of Public Health, I was awarded a full scholarship as a public health intern at Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Eugene McCarthy at Cornell was the medical director of a Taft-Hartley joint union/management health benefits self-administered fund at the time and my mentor. I worked on the Building Service 32 B-J Health Fund, which was the focus of an eight-year study sponsored by the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services, or HHS) and which was the first study on second surgical opinions.

The study (1972-1980) followed union members and their families who were told they needed elective surgery and documented that roughly 30% of recommended surgeries turned out to be medically unnecessary. The study found 12 surgeries that generated the most second opinions that didn’t confirm the original diagnosis. This list comprises: back surgery, bone surgery and bunions of the foot, cataract removal, cholecystectomy, coronary bypass, hysterectomy, knee surgery, mastectomy, prostatectomy, hip surgery, repair of deviated septum and tonsillectomy.

What has changed on this list 35 years later? Very little, if anything.

USA Today on March 12, 2013, reported on a study that found that; “tens of thousands of times each year patients undergo surgery they don’t need.” After the release of this study, a former surgeon and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health stated that: “It is a very serious issue, and there really hasn’t been much movement to address it.”

A CNN special on March 10, 2013, reported that the U.S. spent $2.7 trillion on healthcare per year and that 30%, or roughly $800 billion, was wasted on care that did not improve outcomes. Sound familiar? The Cornell study said the same thing 31 years earlier.

Public and private employers, health, disability and workers’ comp insurers and state and federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are doing very little, if anything, to effectively address this problem. The solution to preventing unnecessary care and surgery is not in raising co-pays and deductibles and other out of pocket costs unless they are tied to consumer education and well-designed second-opinion programs.

In response to the USA Today article, a leading medical expert said, “You can shop for a toaster better than prostate surgery, because we don’t give patients enough information.” Another leading surgeon stated; “Far too many patients are having surgeries they don’t need, with associated major and severe complications such as long-term disability and even death.” Furthermore, “I see patients with neck and back problems, and at least 1/3 are scheduled for operations they don’t need, with no clinical findings except pain.”

What is the principal focus of today’s multibillion-dollar managed care industry, especially in workers’ compensation? Provider discounts, that’s what. But how is it a savings if the patient receives a discount on an operation he doesn’t need?

Most often, when I ask that question I am met with blank stares.

The New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 stated that a common knee surgery for osteoarthritis “isn’t effective in treating patients with moderate to severe forms of the disease.” Yet, according to federal researchers, 985,000 Americans have arthroscopic knee surgery each year, and 33% (more than 300,000) are for osteoarthritis “despite overwhelming medical evidence that arthroscopic surgery is not effective therapy for advanced osteoarthritis of the knee.”

According to the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, the U.S. health system is “doing a lot of heart procedures that people don’t need.” For example, angioplasty stent surgery in heart patients will likely relieve pain but “will not help a person live longer and will not protect against having another heart attack… What’s worse is that many of these surgeries will lead to bad outcomes.” He said, “This procedure should be performed for patients having a heart attack, but 95% of patients who have angioplasty surgery are not the result of a heart attack.”

The estimate on the direct medical costs to American businesses for low back pain is $90 billion a year; this doesn’t include workers’ compensation indemnity and litigation costs, disability costs, sick days and indirect costs such as lost productivity. As reported in my previous article, The Truth about Treating Low Back Pain, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that 40% of initial back surgeries, which amounts to more than 80,000 patients per year, have “failed back surgeries.” These unsuccessful back surgeries most often lead to a lifetime of debilitating back pain and billions more in long-term disability and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) costs. These patients — four out of every 10 — all wish they had received a second opinion now. Yet when I recommended a second-opinion program to a union health fund in New Jersey, the manager said: “I am not going to tell my union members they need to get a second opinion.” True story.

Although we were scheduled to have an informal lunch meeting, after I recommended the fund consider a second-opinion program the “lunch” part of the meeting disappeared, even though I had driven two hours to get there. Maybe that is where the expression there is “no such thing as a free lunch” comes from? The health fund manager was downright indignant about my suggestion even though the first-second opinion program was conducted on behalf of a union health fund and was overwhelmingly successful.

He did describe, however, how upset he was about the fund’s rising healthcare costs. I guess he just wanted to be able to complain about it instead of actually doing something about it on behalf of his members. (The president of the union confided in me afterward that he had failed back surgery many years ago and wished he had gone for a second opinion.)

A colleague of my mine who is a senior vice president of product development for a leading third-party administrator (TPA) confided that insurance companies and TPAs will not implement programs that I could design and implement for their clients because they would never admit it was a good idea, given that they didn’t invent it.

I also hear all the time from so-called experts that second surgical opinions don’t work and don’t save money.

But large self-insured employers and health, disability and workers’ comp insurers should follow the lead of the top sports teams who send their top athletes for second opinions all the time to places like the Hospital for Special Surgery (HHS) and New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center in Manhattan or UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

When I send client employees or friends and neighbors for second opinions, they often tell me that their appointment was with the same doctor Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter went to. My response is, “exactly.” Very often, conservative treatment is recommended and produces great patient outcomes, especially for back injuries and diagnoses for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. (See Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: It’s Time to Explode the Myth.)

Most, if not all, top surgeons I have met welcome second opinions for their patients because, when surgery is recommended, they want their patients to be assured that another expert also believes it is in their best interests.

I interned at the first second-surgical opinion in the country. I wrote my master’s thesis at Columbia on what I learned and how to improve upon the design and administration of the very successful Cornell program. Although the phrase, “I want a second opinion,” is now common terminology in America from auto repair to surgery, it has not reduced the overall amount of unnecessary surgery. If your program is not successful or not saving money it is because there is a serious flaw in the design and administration.

What I have documented since I designed or administered the first corporate second-opinion benefit programs back in the early 1980s are several key components of a successful program. First, it must be mandatory for the plan member to receive a second opinion for selected elective surgeries. Remember, elective surgery, by definition, means scheduled in advance, not for life-threatening conditions. Second, the second-opinion physician must not be associated with the physician recommending surgery. The physician must truly be an independent board-certified expert. Third, the second-opinion physician cannot perform the surgery; this provision removes any conflict of interest.

In addition, although a plan member should be required to receive a second opinion to receive full benefits under the health plan, the decision on whether to have surgery is entirely up to the patient. The whole idea is to educate the patient on the pros and cons of proposed surgery and the potential benefits for non-surgical treatment or different type of surgery (lumpectomy vs total mastectomy, for example). (I also developed a process of administrative deferrals for instances when it would be impractical to obtain a second opinion or when the conditions were so overwhelming that the need for a second opinion could be waived.)

It is only by helping to make patients truly informed consumers of healthcare and educating them on the benefits of alternative surgical treatments that a program can be successful. Voluntary programs simply don’t work. Rarely do patients seek second opinions on their own, and most often do not know where to obtain and arrange for a top-notch second opinion. In addition, they often feel uncomfortable and do not want to tell their physician they are seeking a second opinion. That is why I found that a program only really works when patients can state that their “health plan requires that I get a second opinion.” The mandatory approach reduces unnecessary surgery dramatically and saves the plan sponsor money with at least 10:1 return on investment.

The most amazing reduction of unnecessary surgery and resulting savings to the plan sponsor comes simply by implementing and communicating the benefits and requirements of the program design that I outlined above. The reason is known as the “Sentinel Effect.” What the original Cornell study and others have documented is at least a 10% reduction in the amount of recommended elective surgery simply from announcing the program is now in effect. No need for an actual second opinion; merely require one!

Now that is cost-effective!

Would a Formulary Help in California?

Introducing a closed pharmaceutical formulary into California workers’ compensation could produce two main benefits. The first is to further lower the cost of pharmaceuticals by either restricting or eliminating certain medications. The second is to reduce the possibility of drug addiction.

An October 2014 California Workers’ Compensation Institute (“CWCI”) report titled, “Are Formularies a Viable Solution for Controlling Prescription Drug Utilization and Cost in California Workers’ Compensation” states that pharmaceutical costs could be reduced by 12%, or $124 million, by introducing the Texas workers’ compensation pharmaceutical formulary.

To achieve the second benefit, an assembly member introduced AB1124 to establish an evidence-based medication formulary and wrote, “The central purpose of our workers’ comp system is to ensure injured workers regain health and get back to work. When workers get addicted to dangerous medications, goals of the program are not met. An evidence-based formulary has proven to be an effective tool in other states and should be considered in California.”

To confirm whether these benefits could be achieved through the introduction of the Texas formulary, a review of the CWCI study and the opioid medications available under the Texas formulary was conducted. The findings, summarized below, suggest that the answer is no.

Although California does not restrict or limit medications in treating injured workers, it does limit the prices paid and provides an opportunity to question prescribed medications that appear to be out of the ordinary. Medi-Cal prices (California’s Medicaid health care program) are used for establishing the maximum prices for workers’ compensation medications, in contrast to states such as Texas, which use the average wholesale price (AWP).

A review of two cost-saving examples that referenced specific medications calculated projected savings based on CWCI’s ICIS payment data for prescriptions paid between Jan. 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013.

The first example compared 50mg Tramadol prices from five different suppliers. The highest was $190, followed by $23, $18, $12 and $8 per script. Here, CWCI suggested that the manufacturer of the highest-priced script be removed from the California formulary. From mid 2009 through 2013, however, the unit price for 50mg Tramadol from the supplier of brand name Ultram and at least 10 other suppliers in California was nine cents, so the AWP for a script was $2. So, overpaying for medications is an issue even if the $190 supplier is removed.

The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) also reported that California claims administrators paid a unit price of 35 cents for 5mg Cyclobenzaprine and 70 cents for 10mg while the unit price from Californian suppliers was 10 cents for 10mg and 15 cents for 5mg. Again, the prices suggest that California claims administrators were paying more than the maximum prices.

Based on randomly selected manufacturers and strengths of the top 20 medications identified in the 2013 NCCI prescription drug study, California’s prices were on average 20% lower than the AWP and in some cases as little as 1/24th the cost. California prices were found to be at the lowest retail price range compared with those published on goodrx.com. Pharmacies located in Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas were used for comparison. Findings suggested employers in California workers’ compensation are paying no more than the general public for medications, whereas in Texas employers are paying more by using the AWP.

The second example compared script prices of seven opioid agonists, including Tramadol and Oxymorphone. Oxymorphone was the highest-priced script at $600 and Tramadol the lowest at $60 per script, suggesting a saving of as much as $540 if Tramadol were to be prescribed instead of Oxymorphone.

But prescribing oxymorphone when tramadol could suffice or vice versa could be regarded as an act of gross negligence by the physician. On the World Health Organization (WHO) analgesic ladder, tramadol and codeine are weak opioids regarded as “step two” while acetaminophen and NSAIDs are “step one.” “Step three” opioids include medications such as morphine, oxycodone and oxymorphone, which all differ in their pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, so choosing one or more to treat pain becomes a balance between possible adverse effects and the desired analgesic effect. Oxymorphone (stronger than morphine or oxycodone) is recommended for use only when a person has not responded to or cannot tolerate morphine or other analgesics to control their pain.

A list of opioid medications published by Purdue Pharma was used to identify which opioids were excluded from the Texas formulary. The list of more than 1,000 opioid analgesics was prepared by Purdue to comply with the state of Vermont law 33 V.S.A. section 2005a, requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide physicians with a list of all drugs available in the same therapeutic class. Being in the same class, however, does not necessarily mean they are interchangeable or have the same efficacy or safety.

The list showed available strengths and included (1) immediate and extended release, (2) agonists such as fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, tramadol, codeine, hydromorphone, methadone, morphine, tapentadol and levorphanol and (3) combinations such as acetaminophen with codeine, oxycodone with acetaminophen, oxycodone with asprin, oxycodone with ibuprofen, hydrocodone with acetaminophen, hydrocodone with ibuprofen, acetaminophen-caffeine with dihydrocodeine, aspirin-caffeine with dihydrocodeine and tramadol with acetaminophen.

It appears that extended-release medications used for around-the-clock treatment of severe chronic pain have been excluded or are not listed in the Texas formulary, with a few exceptions. For example, 80mg OxyContin (Oxycodone) ER 12 hour (AWP $18, Medi-Cal $15) is excluded. 120mg Hysingla (Hydrocodone) ER 24 hour (AWP $41, Medi-Cal $34) is not listed. However, 200mg MS Contin (Morphine) ER 12 hour (AWP $31, Medi-Cal $26) and 100mcg Fentanyl 72 hour transdermal patch in both brand name and generic forms are approved under the Texas formulary. Immediate-release generic medications such as oxycodone, hydromorphone and hydrocodone with acetaminophen in all strengths are approved, but immediate-release hydrocodone with ibuprofen and oxymorphone in either immediate or extended release are excluded.

Would the objective of AB1124 be achieved by utilizing the Texas formulary? The above review suggests it would not. All the opioid medications available through the Texas formulary have the potential to cause addiction and be abused, possibly leading to death either accidentally or intentionally. As an example, the executive director of the Medical Board of California has filed accusations against Dr. Henri Eugene Montandon for unprofessional conduct including gross negligence. His patient was found dead with three 100mcg fentanyl patches on his upper chest. The autopsy revealed he potentially had toxic levels of fentanyl, codeine and morphine in his bloodstream at time of death. These three opioids are available under the Texas formulary.

An article published on the website www.startribune.com described the challenges in treating returning soldiers from combat duty. The article discusses Zach Williams, decorated with two Purple Hearts who was found dead in his home from a fatal combination of fentanyl and venlafaxine, an antidepressant. Venlafaxine in both immediate- and extended-release form is approved in the Texas formulary. In addition, the following statement was made in a 2011 CWCI study into fentanyl: “Of the schedule II opioids included in the Institute’s study, the most potent is fentanyl, which is 75 to 100 times more powerful than oral morphine.”

The top 20 medications identified by the 2013 NCCI prescription drug study were also compared with the Texas formulary, and six medications were found to be excluded, including three extended-release opioids, OxyContin (Oxycodone), Opana ER (Oxymorphone) and the once-daily Kadian ER (Morphine). The twice-daily, extended-release morphine MS Contin, however, was approved. Flector, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory transdermal patch used for acute pain from minor strains and sprains, was excluded, as was carisoprodol a muscle relaxant classified by the DEA as a Schedule IV medication (the same as Tramadol). The Lidocaine transdermal patch, which is a local anesthetic available in both brand name and generic. was also excluded. Lidocaine patches have been found to assist in controlling pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back pain and sore muscles. Apart from carisoprodol, it would appear the remaining five were excluded from the Texas formulary because of their high price rather than concerns regarding their safety or potential for abuse.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the approval of all medications in the U.S. Its approved list is the U.S. pharmacy formulary (or closed formulary). California workers’ compensation uses this list for treatment and the Medi-Cal formulary for medication pricing. In comparison, Texas workers’ compensation uses its own formulary, which is a restricted list of FDA-approved medications, and pays a higher price for approved medications than California’s system does.

Implementing an evidence-based formulary, such as in Texas, may result in an injured worker’s not having the same choice of medications as a patient being treated for pain under California’s Medicaid healthcare program. How can this be morally justified? Will we see injured workers paying out-of-pocket to receive the medications necessary to control their pain?

Claims administrators can greatly reduce pharmaceutical costs through their own initiatives by (1) ensuring that they pay no more than the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) published price for a medication, (2) ensuring that physicians within their medical provider network (MPN) treat pain using the established pharmacological frameworks such as the WHO analgesic ladder, (3) ensuring that quantities and medication strengths are monitored, along with how a person has responded to analgesics, (4) ensuring that, when controlling pain with opioids, there is a heightened awareness for potential abuse, misuse and addiction, (5) establishing a multimodal pain management regimen including non-pharmacological therapies such as acupuncture, aerobics, pilates, chiropractic and physical therapy tailored to a person’s medical condition and, (6) for chronic pain, considering introducing an Internet-delivered pain management program based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The progress of many of these initiatives can be automatically monitored through a claims administrator’s technology solution, where a yellow or red flag is raised when prices paid exceed the legislated maximum amounts, when a pharmacological step therapy or progressive plan has been breached or when non-pharmacological therapy goals have not been achieved.

Using these initiatives, as opposed to restricting specific manufacturers or medications through a closed formulary, will undoubtedly yield a far better outcome for the injured worker and lower the cost to the employer, benefiting all involved.

A Catch-22 on Hiring the Disabled

In the Missouri Court of Appeals' recent decision in Stewart v. Second Injury Fund, the facts were not in dispute: Ms. Stewart worked at Subway for a few months, suffered a moderately severe injury at work and could not return to any type of employment.

Here’s where the story becomes interesting: The claimant qualified for Social Security disability in 1997 — more than 10 years before she started working at Subway. 

Her Social Security disability was awarded based on confirmed medical conditions including arthritis, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, degenerative joint and bone disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. She continued to receive Social Security disability benefits even while she was working at Subway.

After her work injury in 2009, she filed for workers' compensation benefits, claiming that she was permanently and totally disabled.

Was the claimant permanently and totally disabled before her injury at Subway? Apparently not, because she was able to obtain that job and perform the duties associated with that job. In the absence of her injury, she would have presumably been able to continue working. 

Why would she be entitled to Social Security disability benefits if she was able to compete in the open labor market? If she was disabled in 1997, should she be entitled to more benefits when she was injured at a job that she should not have been able to obtain?

What if Subway had told the claimant during her initial job interview that she could not be hired because of her multiple disabilities? She could have sued Subway under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that Subway was discriminating against her. Subway, not wanting to be sued, could have been forced to hire the claimant only to face the prospect of being liable for permanent total disability after only a few months of work.

I’m not attempting to disparage the claimant. She obtained benefits that are legally provided. My question is this: Is it fair to place employers in no-win situations where they face litigation if the employee is not hired, yet still face litigation if the employee IS hired?

This situation arises because of the myriad of state and federal laws that regulate every facet of the workplace. Every employer must wade through an alphabet soup of overlapping laws every single day (ADA, FMLA, COBRA, EFCA, EAD, ERISA, FLSA, FCRA, INA and a host of others). 

One cannot swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting five politicians giving a speech focused on creating jobs. Yet, can jobs be created by strangling the very companies that create these jobs?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: It’s Time to Explode the Myth

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) has caused a firestorm of controversy in recent years. CTS is a perfect example of how popular beliefs are not supported by medical evidence.

It is time to set the record straight.

Although the popular belief is that keyboard use causes CTS, the science shows otherwise. Nine studies have reviewed this relationship, including ones by the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School and a Swedish study reported in Orthopedics Today. The scientific research shows that keyboards are safe to use and do not cause CTS. Furthermore, keyboard design had no effect on the incidence of CTS. Symptoms may increase with many activities, including the use of keyboards, but keyboards do not cause CTS.

According to the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Disease and Injury Causation, “85% of patients who meet the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines and requirements for a diagnosis of CTS would not have a true CTS confirmed by nerve conduction testing.”

What complicates the diagnosis and treatment of CTS is that there are multiple causes of the symptoms. These include: diabetes, pregnancy, use of birth control pills, menopause, various vitamin deficiencies, insufficient water consumption, exposure to cold temperatures, incorrect sleeping positions, smoking, knitting, playing musical instruments, recreational sporting activities and other non-work-related activities.

What complicates the diagnosis and treatment of CTS even further is that there are literally dozens of other diseases and conditions that mimic CTS-like symptoms. These include: tendonitis, bursitis, sprains, fractures, dislocations, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, thoracic outlet syndrome, myofacial trigger points, as well as an array of neck, shoulder, back and cervical conditions. In fact, there are 59 medical conditions that have been identified to be associated with CTS-like symptoms.

A common error in diagnosis and treatment is the tendency of physicians to treat a case as if there were a single physical site causing all the problems. In fact, it would be extremely rare for only one nerve location to be involved. This means that pain in the wrist may be the result of nerve entrapment in the neck or shoulder. This is referred to as the “whole-nerve syndrome.”

Even the popular name is incorrect. The correct clinical name is Median Nerve Compression Neuropathy. According to the AMA Physicians Guide to Return to Work, “CTS is actually a condition with a known pathology and not a syndrome, but the name ‘carpal tunnel syndrome’ has become so well-known that CTS is used.”

Medical studies have shown that as many as 85% of patients who are told they have CTS are misdiagnosed. The overwhelming number of cases are determined to be work-related–a major problem in the workers' compensation industry for the past two decades–and it has been reported that as many as 70% of those diagnosed go on to receive CTS surgery.

Currently, 250,000 people a year in the U.S. have CTS release surgery. If 85% of those are based on misdiagnoses, that would mean more than 210,000 unnecessary surgeries per year. At a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per surgery, that's some $1.5 billion a year spent on inappropriate surgery, much of it paid for by workers' comp.

According to a University of Maryland Medical Center study, “CTS surgery does not cure all patients and because it permanently cuts the carpal tunnel ligament some wrist strength is often lost. A number of experts believe that CTS release is performed too often.”

A medical director at a leading insurance company told me, “I recommend that all CTS cases have surgery because that is where all the cases end up anyway.” Needless to say, I will not recommend that insurer to my clients.

The good news is that CTS can be diagnosed accurately. In many cases, it can be treated successfully with conservative treatment in a matter of weeks and is easily prevented.

The bad news is that primary-care physicians more often than not misdiagnose CTS. This results in incorrect treatment and unnecessary surgery, which leads to chronic unresolved conditions, no relief to the patient and staggering costs to U.S. employers and insurers.

Leading medical experts such as Dr. Peter Tsairis, retired chairman of neurology at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, said the biggest concern is the automatic assumption that the clinical problem is work-related. “It is a significant problem, since many of these patients do not have CTS,” he added. He has often seen patients already scheduled for surgery whose primary-care physicians did not perform a thorough physical exam or conduct any electrical diagnostic testing to confirm the CTS diagnosis.

Dr. Ron Safko, a New York-based, board-certified chiropractic orthopedist, has also seen many cases of misdiagnosis by primary-care physicians. “It boggles my mind how physicians do not even consider other underlying conditions and do not even examine other areas, such as the neck, back, shoulder or cervical spine,” he said.

Just because it has become a widely accepted urban myth that CTS is caused by keyboarding and, therefore, a work-related injury, should not give treating physicians the liberty to avoid performing a thorough patient history, physical examination and appropriate diagnostic testing based on widely accepted and evidenced-based medical protocols.

Isn’t it about time the workers’ compensation industry got it right?

This article first appeared on Annmarie Communicates Insurance.