Tag Archives: diagnosis

Wising Up on Prostate Tests (Finally)

The number of tests for prostate cancer has dropped, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Melinda Beck, but it’s not for the reason that first jumps to mind.

The article says, “The declines follow the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendations against routine testing for prostate cancer, first for men aged 75 and older in 2008, and then for men of all ages in 2012, on the grounds that the benefits likely don’t outweigh the harms.”

I repeat: The benefits of prostate screening likely don’t outweigh the risks.

In short, the diagnosis rate is down because, apparently, more doctors are following new guidelines on prostate screening. At last…at long last.

But there is a joker in the deck. Every wellness program I’ve looked at has not adopted the USPSTF’s prostate screening guidelines. (There may be some that have adopted the new recommendations, but I haven’t seen them.)

It’s worse. I asked a wellness vendor why the company was persisting in promoting prostate over-screening. His reply made my stomach churn. He said that, if his wellness company changed the guidelines, it would have to admit it was wrong in the first place. So it is keeping flawed recommendations to save face. I’d name the vendor, but I agreed to keep what he told me in confidence. Alas.

If you have a wellness program, and the vendor is not following that guideline on prostate screening, you need to give it a big nudge.

P.S. Years ago, I asked my primary care doctor to stop doing PSA tests on me.

Better Approach to Soft Tissue Injury

Musculoskeletal diseases, defined as injuries to the soft tissues, currently affect more than one out of every two persons in the U.S. age 18 and older, and nearly three out of four over the age of 65. Low back pain affects at least 80% of adults at some point, with an estimated annual cost of more than $100 billion. Trauma, back pain and arthritis — the three most common musculoskeletal conditions — are the most common reason for patient visits to physicians’ offices, emergency departments and hospitals every year. With the aging U.S. population, musculoskeletal diseases are becoming a greater burden every year.

A determination must be made if the pain generator is muscular or structural, and incorrect diagnoses can lead to inappropriate treatments and, in the worst case, unnecessary surgeries.

About 80% of healthcare and social costs related to low back pain are attributed to just 10% of patients with chronic pain and disability. This statistic suggests that improved interventions to reduce the recurrence of low back pain can underpin significant cost savings and improvement in patient outcomes.

The standard approach to managing soft tissue injuries is to obtain a medical history and perform a physical examination. Imaging or testing usually is not needed in the early phases of treatment. In most cases, the natural history of a soft tissue injury resolves without intervention.

There are excellent tools to diagnose structural abnormalities or nerve injuries. These include imaging studies, nerve condition tests and disograms. X-rays can be used to assess the possibility of fracture or dislocation. Nerve conduction studies may be used to localize nerve dysfunction.

But they are not adequate for soft tissue injury or functional assessments. MRI and CT scans, while excellent tests to evaluate structure, are generally static and not designed to assess muscle function dynamically. In addition, these standard tests all carry a high rate of false positives.

There is no magic bullet or one test that does everything. While many tests are good for what they are designed to evaluate, they are not appropriate to diagnose a soft tissue injury.

Enter electrodiagnostic functional assessment — EFA testing. The EFA is a diagnostic tool that combines and enhances five medically accepted tests: electromyography, range of motion, functional capacity evaluation, pinch and grip strength. The EFA is non-invasive and non-loading. The advantage the EFA presents over performing these tests individually is that it performs all tests simultaneously and in a dynamic fashion.

This equipment has a 510 (k) registration with the Food and Drug Administration as a Class II diagnostic device. Furthermore, the FDA has recognized in the intended use section that the technology can distinguish between acute and chronic pathology, is able to look at referred pain patterns and is useful with treatment recommendations and baseline testing.

Physicians encounter patients daily with complaints of injuries to the soft tissues, particularly the paraspinal muscles. In many cases, objective findings are obvious, but many patients may have injuries that are subtle but continue to cause symptoms. In other cases, the injuries may be less recent, and the physical findings may not be apparent. Direct palpation of soft tissues can, in some cases, reveal the nature or type of injury, but this manner of diagnosis relies on static testing. For some individuals, problems may only be encountered during activity. Measuring muscle activity during range-of-motion testing is difficult at best. The extent to which a patient exerts herself also presents a subjective bias with soft tissue injury.

Better outcomes will be demonstrated by using the correct tools to evaluate the underlying pathology. In Adam Seidner’s paper “Assessing disease and wellness in the occupational setting: Electrodiagnostic Functional Assessment from wired to wireless,” he demonstrated that, when the EFA was implemented as a case management tool, it enhanced the level of discussion among treating providers, injured workers and claim professionals. The study demonstrated that medical and lost wage payments to injured workers and their healthcare providers were 25% lower in the EFA group, for an average savings of $10,000 per claim versus the control group. Most importantly, the average return to work was 213 days in the EFA group versus 275 for the control group, or an average of 62 days sooner. The EFA was able to provide better diagnostic information on soft tissue injuries and return the individual back to activities of daily living sooner. Better patient care leads to better outcomes.

The EFA results are further demonstrated in the paper “Musculoskeletal disorders early diagnosis: A retrospective study in the occupational medicine setting.” The study found EFA test results affected the course of treatment, improved clinical and functional outcomes, increased patient satisfaction and decreased dispute litigation. In fact, 98 of the 100 cases resulted in return to maximum medical improvement with no rateable impairment and full release to active duty. Only 2% of the cases were challenged, and 98% of those in the EFA control group returned to their pre-injury jobs. These cases were tracked over a three-year period.

The EFA-STM baseline program is just another example of better diagnostics providing better patient care. This book-end solution allows for the best care possible for the work-related injury. If a condition is not deemed to be work-related, the individual can still receive the best care and a quicker resolution.

The EFA does not replace the other, well-established diagnostic tests; it is simply a better diagnostic alternative for soft tissue injuries. All the tests can complement one another.

At the end of the day, when it comes workers’ compensation, the issue is providing better patient care. It’s a win-win for all parties.

 

How Medicare Can Heal Workers’ Comp

Workers’ comp in every state should carve out its medical line and relinquish it to Medicare. The respective statutory systems for indemnity benefits would remain. This scenario, albeit challenging in execution, would correct the cause of many systemic workers’ comp ills.

First, we must admit that the root of most WC problems lies in the delivery of medical care. Workers’ compensation medicine inhabits its own “bizzaro-world,” often lacking both clinical science and common sense. This is not the fault of most medical practitioners themselves, but more because of the pervasive manipulations, exaggerations and legal stretching of sensibilities that defy the clinical standards used in other venues.

The ubiquitous, counter-intuitive flaw is that WC medicine often is used to expand a claim rather than provide a cure. Anyone in the WC business can agree to the following truths as just a sample of medically related frustrations:

– Most any study performed shows higher costs and worse outcomes in WC medicine than in other settings. Common injuries take longer to heal when they are WC claims.

– Hearing judges regularly disregard clinical opinions in favor of subjective evidence. A common judicial outcome is to award illogical progressions, allowing diagnoses to expand as problems progress through various body parts.

– Causal relationship has an extremely low and speculative threshold when injuries are combined with chronic overlays and co-morbidities.

– Chronic conditions are accepted as arising out of incredibly specious initial traumas.

– Multiple surgeries and lifetime narcotic regimes are embraced in the face of perpetual and repeated failures to cure, all to the general detriment of claimants’ health.

– Various entities have profit streams directly related to churning medical care.

– Most of the pendulum-swinging effort in statutory legal reform amounts to limited attempts to control medical systems already tainted by legal gamesmanship. Therefore, the results don’t always support optimal clinical perspectives or patient well-being.

WC professionals may have a jaded viewpoint and accept this nonsense as part of the game. I ask you to consider a world where WC medical care was a non-issue. How much conflict and cost could be taken out of the system?

Let’s take it another step and consider ridding the current system of Medicare Set Asides (MSAs). We all know MSAs and their surrounding requirements increase cost, require added resources and waste temporary total disability (TTD) money in process delays. MSAs are a hijacking of any given state’s ability to allow compromise settlements over unproven causal relationships. In effect, when no one has determined direct causal relationship, MSAs simply decree all future care be paid, in advance, as an addendum to a settlement. Another terrible dynamic of this hijacking is how Medicare profits from the wild abandon in WC medicine, as a litany of future responsibilities can be attached to a claim absent a clinical “reasonable and customary” test by which Medicare itself might never accept such treatment requirements.

Through the MSA process, Medicare enjoys an exceptionally advantageous position with respect to WC. However, the playing field can be leveled by giving Medicare every claim from day one.

There should certainly be a direct reimbursement requirement from WC claim payers to Medicare for related care provided. I argue that this scenario would be much less costly and more efficient and fair than the current big-picture scheme that is WC medicine.

Here are a few practical thoughts in application that require no big changes:

-Medicare uses its current rules for “reasonable and necessary” to approve all care and to formally conclude treatment. Disputes can be handled via existing channels available through Medicare.

– Medicare uses its current fee schedules.

– Medicare uses its current rules for determining “chronic” conditions as opposed to curative treatment. This is the arbiter for otherwise obstinate, litigated maximum medical improvement (MMI) arguments and sets the bar for drawing down the WC reimbursement requirement and transferring a case to group health if continuing care is necessary.

Here are additional suggested changes to support the concept:

– Questionable causation or responsibility for migrating diagnosis could be given a percentage likelihood that would be applied to Medicare reimbursements. Independent physicians from opposing sides could put forth opinions, and a review process could establish the percentage applied to the life of the medical case. For example, a clinical consensus decrees that aggravated shoulder pain is 25% likely as due to job-related issues, and therefore future Medicare reimbursements from WC are 25% of cost.

– Extent of disability and permanency could still be determined by state-sanctioned independent medical exams (IMEs) and litigation process. The difference would be limits on the opportunity to exploit medical opinion, as Medicare would refer for these opinions, and aspects of Medicare’s rules and controls and requisite threat of sanctions would govern the providers.

– Medicare would need to categorize WC-preferred providers with appropriate qualification in occupationally related medicine.

– The ability to actually settle medical costs would no longer exist in any state.

– New employer insurance products or funding mechanisms could be invented to cover “Continuing Medicare Reimbursements” on certain classes of long-term claims where indemnity is fully closed, as well as the sporadic one-off future claims that might arise as allegedly part of an initial WC claim, with a “claims made” type of trigger. No more MSAs.

In conclusion, this concept would profoundly improve WC in four ways:

1) It provides a nationally accepted level of care to injured workers.

2) It brings clinical common sense to an otherwise specious and manipulated system.

3) It ends the oppressive impact of MSAs.

4) It saves an incredible amount of direct costs, frictional costs and resources while reducing litigation.

This idea is radical, but, among the calls to revise the grand bargain, it does not totally explode the current state system. I say, let the debate begin!

Is Controlling Workers' Comp Costs Really the Answer?

The agendas of all the big workers' compensation seminars agree. Controlling costs is the biggest and most pressing issue. Some might say it's the only issue. But I wonder if this emphasis isn't counterproductive….

The regulatory side

From a regulator's point of view, cost control is accomplished by imposing restrictions, by establishing fee and treatment schedules and, occasionally, by providing incentives that encourage the desired behavior. At bottom, the basis of regulation is distrust.

Controls are generally set to make everyone play by a single set of rules that allow the illusion of predictability and fairness.

I say “the illusion” because a clear understanding of the most common style of regulation shows a dysfunctional relationship. The regulator issues a regulation controlling, say, billing by physical therapists. The physical therapists will always collectively understand their business better than the regulator and will soon find a way to “work around” any portion of the regulations that they find objectionable. The regulator will eventually become aware of the “hole” in the regulations. The regulator will then move to reassert control by tightening the regulations, only to start the cycle all over again. 

In the meantime, the regulator comes to believe that the stakeholders (physical therapists in this example) cannot be trusted. The stakeholders have to be ever more closely controlled. When that fails, it “must be” because those pesky PTs are trying to make excess profits; the belief that they are self-serving becomes entrenched. Multiply this phenomenon by all of the various groups of stakeholders and service providers, and you see the atmosphere of “us against them” that is all too common in regulatory circles.

The trouble with this pattern for controlling costs is that it really is a cost driver. Every time the regulations change, two things happen. 

First, the change itself is costly. Computer programs have to be changed. People have to be retrained. Time that used to be spent doing the work of the industry is spent doing the work of the regulator. At the end of the day, the passive-aggressive resistance of the industry will win, and the cost of cost controls will outweigh the savings.

Second, the services to the injured get constrained by the cost controls, and the ability to provide individualized services suffers. One size does not fit all in injury management, and attempts to make it so usually end up fitting virtually no one.

The claims side

When the claims payer tries to impose control costs, the result is a different kind of cost driver. Once again, the whole system is based upon distrust. The claim must be investigated before it is accepted –even though only about one in 20 of the claims reported for suspected worker fraud justifies a finding of illegal behavior.[i1] Rehabilitative services that the research clearly shows are most effective if provided within the first days of the claim are delayed because this claim just might be the one in 20 (or worse, in a cynical attempt to save money by getting the injured worker with a legitimate claim to “just go away.”) Unfortunately, the delay of necessary services makes the claim more likely to become complex, more likely to attract the ungentle ministrations of the lawyers[ii], and less likely to resolve uneventfully.

Not only does the delay hurt, but the process of investigating the claim creates its own opportunities for adverse outcomes. Investigation is a statement of distrust. Tell the worker that you question whether she is really as hurt as she claims, and the natural reaction is to push back and try to prove that the injury really is severe. Sometimes, in that process, workers become attached to the belief in the seriousness of their injury, with unfortunate results.

Medicalization of the claim often occurs in the process of seeking a diagnosis. The diagnosis is not necessary for treatment of the injury in many cases – conservative care for, say, lower back pain is the same for the first few weeks whether it has a diagnosis or is just unspecified pain. Yet, because of the payer's distrust of the claim, we routinely get a diagnosis even though that risks losing control of the claim. 

Once the claim has been accepted, the scrutiny and distrust continue, again in the name of cost control. Adjusters and third-party payers have to justify their work, so claims are scrutinized. Frustration, delay and anger may be created in another self-perpetuating cycle of distrust.  

The outcomes of this dysfunction are often visited on the injured worker, in the form of reduced or curtailed injury management and lack of time for patient education that has proven value in durable recovery. 

We fail to realize that many cases of failure to recover as anticipated are caused by distrust, expressed in the system as cost-control measures. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that claims with unexplained failure to recover make up a large percentage of the 20% of claims that result in 80% of our loss costs. We might save a few dollars on some claims with our cost-control scrutiny, but at the risk of creating unnecessary complex, long-tail claims. We also risk pushing some of the cases into becoming one of those relatively rare cases of genuine misconduct, as people try to make the system work for them, in any way they can.

So, where are the savings?

A way forward

There are many other ways that cost controls actually become inadvertent cost drivers in the system. I'm not going to belabor the point further, because the important take-away is that an alternative exists. If 20% of claims create 80% of costs, then any efforts to prevent claims from falling into that 20% are heavily leveraged in their cost-savings impact.

If we want durable and sustainable cost control, the first step is to understand the dynamics that allow some people to recover and thrive while others with similar injuries spiral down to despair and dependency. While there isn't the space to discuss that topic here[iii], a better understanding about what helps injured people to avoid becoming “disabled” almost certainly leads to real and sustainable cost savings. And the distrust that currently permeates our systems isn't any part of it.

We created our situation, so we ought to be able to control it. Einstein said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Our current fixation on cost controls certainly makes the system more complex and full of new players eagerly selling us the latest magic bullet. The understanding to move us in the opposite direction also exists, if we can find the internal fortitude to use it.


[i1] The 5% average comes from presentations at the National Workers' Compensation College, International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions, 2004-2006, and from the author's own personal observation while supervising the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Administration fraud investigation unit over the course of five years.

[ii] See Aurbach, R.  “Suppose Hippocrates had been a Lawyer,” Psychological Injury and Law, Volume 6, pages 215-237, 2013.

[iii] See Aurbach, R. “Breaking the Web of Needless Disability” Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, http://iospress.metapress.com/content/y50n1479vj054364/?p=7d6ab3539cd840bea6e14dbe8f2874dd&pi=0