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Future of Work Comp Healthcare Delivery

Reform is changing healthcare delivery models, but there is a large gap between the healthcare related to workers’ compensation and the group health approach.

As a result of healthcare reform, the industry has experienced significant consolidation of health systems and medical practices, with an added emphasis on patients as consumers of healthcare, all as providers continue to evolve. As employers, though, our message is confused.

We tell employees that we have a great healthcare system for them, encourage them to choose the best physician to meet their needs and remind them to get regular checkups. However, if an employee gets injured, we have a separate system with a separate set of doctors and a separate set of rules.

If employers can find better doctors to treat workers, they can improve the quality of the workers’ compensation system. Employers are not going to get better doctors just by paying more; but, if they can identify which doctors are doing a better job and reward them, results improve.

California’s model has been experimenting with the concept of rewarding doctors for providing superior care, which has resulted in significant cost reduction. Great doctors are actually reducing the amount of medical attention required and, overall, workers’ compensation claims costs. As a result of better care and employee satisfaction, litigation costs have also dropped. Quality matters.

With advancements in technology, reimbursement models, a focus on quality and the movement of connected care, health systems across the U.S. are offering accountable care organizations (ACOs) for employer benefit solutions. Many think mergers and consolidation are a bad thing, however, in this consolidated world where health systems have changed, mergers and consolidation are changing “well care” to “sick care.” By taking a holistic approach, you are able to take a patient from wellness to injury care. Workers’ compensation needs to be part of this discussion. If not, we cause an even greater divide.

This holistic approach is not a new concept. In the 1990s, there were three 24-hour care pilot programs that tried this approach and resulted in lowered cost and improved medical control. At the same time, 10 states also mandated 24-hour pilot studies. Employers generally liked the pilot programs, which resulted in benefits such as increased medical control and reduced costs. On the national front today, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a total worker health program that considers the total person and the factors that affect the individual’s health. The workers’ compensation system could borrow and apply successful elements from these programs.

When you send an injured worker to the best and brightest, you make the workers and their families feel like you are treating them well. This gets the patient to do what the doctor wants and stops the unfortunate spiral of delays in care. Technology is going to refine this approach even further. Technology will enable patients to get in touch with doctors immediately and will make the worker feel like he was properly cared for. This has the potential to be extremely effective and efficient for the system.

When a connected care system is not in place, the gaps in care are leading to needless disability and extended absence. Technology and telemedicine are essential components of this connected care. Gathering and analyzing health data is also important to drive positive behavior and improve overall quality of care.

The patient base is also more complicated, and that is where finding the great doctor comes into play. Today, if you have a patient with a broken arm, you may, in fact, have a patient with a broken arm and diabetes, which is much more difficult to treat. We need to find these great doctors and find systems for them to work with that operate far more efficiently. Technology is a very big part of that.

The current workers’ compensation system is not set up to reimburse for payments under this new model, including the use of nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. The system needs to move in this direction. There are simply not enough physicians to see everyone. These healthcare professionals are essential elements of the group system, and the workers’ compensation system could be improved significantly by recognizing the need for these important providers.

Workers’ compensation currently works in silos, and that is an obstacle. The health system ACO model is communicating directly to the employers. As this model becomes adopted, the board room is not seeing the financial benefits just yet. However, when employers decide they want change, change happens. It is just a matter of getting their attention.

Employers are paying attention to the data they receive on the types of health systems. If the data around what is working in group health becomes available to employers, they will evolve.

Holistic care is certainly a trend that is largely becoming a reality. Workers with sedentary lifestyles who become injured on the job bring complicated connections between injury and pre-existing conditions that are hard to separate. It makes sense to treat people as they are—as a whole person. It is very important to try to get all of the systems to work together to treat the employee as one person.

We need a network that drives total employee health, and we can only have that if group health and workers’ compensation can talk to each other. Data is going to drive this evolution. The best-case scenario is if all this wonderful science and data can be put to use to help patients and merge what currently are parallel systems.

These issues were discussed in more details during an Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark webinar, which was broadcast on Sept. 30, 2015. The archived webinar can be viewed here.

Electronic Health Records Hurt Care

Patient care as we know and expect it will diminish because of electronic health records (EHR) requirements. Society will suffer a slow degradation of artful interactive provider attention in deference to “data-field” medicine.

I am not simply referring to the very real and challenging issues in the technical application of EHR systems. Rather, I point out a more serious and insidious future threat to the actual human aura in medical practice.

There exists an unintended but real incentive for doctors and clinicians to consider task-completion as clicking through the data interface rather than interacting with and treating the patient. Legal requirements, reimbursements and potential penalties force EHR to top priority. In turn, clinicians as EHR users become more aware of and anticipate the truncated, template-driven and limited means of expressing case events via electronic reports. Therefore, their interaction with patients may be truncated.

I know this sounds callous and insulting to all good medical providers. To them, I say no insult is intended, and the fault of this perverse incentive is not theirs. They might honestly assess their experience and the actions of peers and associates within their practices given the advent of EHR. To providers, I ask: What about EHR might be sucking the creative life out of your optimal vision for the practice of your specialty?

My most stark encounter with this reality comes from a chance discussion with a longtime friend. She is a nurse practitioner who, for decades, has treated both ER and family-practice patients. As family friends, we never talk shop, and this particular conversation was not solicited by me. I politely asked, “How’s it going?” and got a surprising, soul-baring burst of frustration.

She expressed disdain. She prides herself as a master of triage, symptom investigation, on-the-spot research and communication with involved family members, and she desires to take the wide approach to patient situations as a service to them and to the doctors or specialists who may eventually carry the case, but electronic records don’t allow the narratives or collective points of data she would prefer. As such, her value is diminished, and the patient ultimately gets poor attention.

As she described her situation, I began to understand the rigid decision-tree “intelligence” in narrowing prompts for information based on how case records are initiated. She has persevered and found cumbersome work-around methods (such as editing previous fields to change next options, etc.) to combine or add issues or thoughts to a record beyond the template’s desired straight line of thought. Unfortunately, she explained, taking extra time to do anything is neither advisable nor encouraged because of the volume of patients requiring care.

Quick Tip: The Want for Data Should Not Put the Cart Before the Horse

As a foreshadowing about healthcare in general, consider what the supreme focus on automation and data collection has done to workers’ compensation. I have written extensively about the advent of electronic claim systems, over decades, reducing the adjusting job from that of an intelligent, intuitive personal-interactive specialist to the current task-level data entry clerk. We are now well into the post-paper-file generation of claim adjusters who know their job only as data-interface. Will medical clinicians meet the same fate when our current generation of providers, like my friend, move on? Will future clinicians, knowing only electronic records, assume that the decision tree of the EHR interface supersedes intuitive medicine?

Let’s hope not. Unfortunately, a simple Google search for “problems with EHR” will not sit well with anyone who embarks on some research in this area.

In claim adjusting, as in medicine, we need to intelligently feed the hunger for data but rail against a perverse desire to let automation increase case volumes or assume the template is sacrosanct. I am certainly not against all the good that electronic medical records bring to the party. However, we must first let practitioners do their jobs, not let “data screen medicine” dumb down patient care.

Perhaps provider-run coalitions should dictate standards for ever-improving EHR frameworks and interfaces so their highest-quality, real-time nimble intelligence can be best captured in all patient events. I know at least one nurse practitioner who has a lot to say on that subject.

A Secret for Comparing Workers’ Comp Costs

Workers’ compensation claims and medical managers are continually challenged by upper management to analyze their drivers of workers’ comp costs. Moreover, upper management wants comparisons of the organization’s results to that of peers.

The request is appropriate. Costs of doing business directly affect the competitive performance of the organization. Understanding drivers of workers’ comp costs is key to making adjustments to improve performance. Still, it’s not that simple.

Executing the analysis is the lesser of the two demands. More challenging is finding industry or peer data that is similar enough to create an apples-to-apples study. In a recent article, Nick Parillo states, “Regardless of the data source, whether it be peer-related or insurance industry-related, risk managers must be focused on aligning the data to their respective company and its operations.” Parillo emphasizes that the data should be meaningful and relevant to the organization.

Aligning the data to the situation can be challenging. Industry or peer data may not be situation-specific enough or granular enough to elicit accurate and illuminating information. State regulations vary, as do business products and practices, along with a multitude of other conditions that make truly accurate comparisons difficult.

Variability in the data available for benchmarking can be especially disconcerting when considering medical cost drivers, which now account for the majority of claim costs. Differences in state fee schedules and legislation such as required utilization review (UR) and the use of evidence-based guidelines can produce questionable comparative results. Additionally, whether the contributed data is from self-insured or self-administrated entities can skew the results.

Other variables that make comparing industry or peer data less valid are unionization, physical distribution of employees, employee age and gender, as well as industry type and local resources available. Potential differences are unlimited.

External sources such as local cultural and professional mores, particularly among treating medical providers, can play a significant role in disqualifying data for comparison. For instance, my company’s analysis of client data has uncovered consistent differences in medical practice patterns in one large state. In one geographic sector, referrals to orthopedists with subsequent surgery and higher costs are far more frequent than in another sector of the state for the same type of injury.

Parillo continues, “Given the uncertainty and limitations on the kinds of peer group data a risk manager would need to perform a truly “apples to apples” comparison, the most “relevant and meaningful” data may be that which a risk manager already possesses: His own.”

Analyzing internal data can be highly productive. First, the conditions of meaningful and relevant are guaranteed, for obvious reasons. The geographical differential across one state was found in one organization’s internal data, which ensures that data variability is not a factor.

Analyses can be designed that dissect the data at hand. Follow up to the above example might include looking for other geographic variables in costs, in injury types and in medical practice patterns. Compare physician performance for specific injury types in the same jurisdiction and then look for differences within. To gain this kind of specificity and relevance, drill down for other indicators.

Evaluate how costs move. Look at costs at intervals along the course of claims for specific injury types. In this case, utilizing ICD-9s is more informative than the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) injury descriptors. One client found that injury claims that contained a mental health ICD-9 showed a surge in costs beginning the second year. Now, further analysis can begin to discern earlier indicators of this outcome. In other words, dive further into the data to find leading indicators.

Industry data is not likely to contain the detail necessary to evoke subtle mental health information during the course of the claim. Most analysis ignores the subtlety and sequence of diagnoses assigned. Few would uncover the mental health ICD-9 because few bother with ICD-9s at all.

Drilling down, analyze claims that fall into this category for prescriptions, legal involvement and other factors that might divulge prophetic signs. It is an investigative trail that relies on finite internal data analysis.

Too often people disrespect their own data, thinking it is too poor in quality, therefore of little value. It’s true, much of the data collected over the years is of poorer quality, but it still has value. Begin by cleaning or enhancing the data and removing duplicates. Going forward, management emphasis should be on collecting accurate data.

Benchmarking data sourced from the industry may be useful but should not necessarily be considered the most accurate or productive approach. Internal data analysis may be the best opportunity for discovering cost drivers.

When Is It Right to Prescribe Opioids?

Opioids have been used for thousands of years in the treatment of pain and mental illness. Essentially everyone believes that opioids are powerful pain relievers. However, recent studies have shown that taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen together is actually more effective in treating pain. Because of this, it is helpful for medical professionals and patients to understand the history of these opioid medications and the potential benefits of using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) instead.

Extracted from the seedpod of the poppy plant, opium was the first opioid compound used for medicinal purposes. The active ingredients of opium are primarily morphine, codeine and thebaine. Opium and its derivatives have had more impact on human society than any other medication. Wars have been fought and countless lives have been lost to the misuse, abuse and overdose of opioids. It is also clear, however, that many received comfort from pain when there was no other alternative. For thousands of years, opium products provided the only effective treatment of pain and were also used to treat anxiety and depression. Tolerance, dependence and addiction were identified early as a problem with opioids.

In 1899, Bayer produced and introduced aspirin for wide distribution. It became the first significant alternative to opioids for treating pain. Aspirin not only relieves pain but also reduces inflammation and is in the class of NSAID medications. Aspirin was commonly used for mild pain such as headache and backache. Other NSAID medications followed with the development of ibuprofen in 1961, indomethacin in 1963 and many others over the next 20 years. While these drugs are not addictive or habit-forming, their use and effectiveness were limited by side effects and toxicity. All NSAID medications share some of the same side effects of aspirin, primarily the risk of gastrointestinal irritation and ulcer. These medications can also harm renal function.

Acetaminophen was created in 1951 but not widely distributed until 1955 under the trade name Tylenol. Acetaminophen is neither an opioid nor an NSAID. Tylenol soon became another medication that was useful in the treatment of pain, offering an alternative to the opioid medications and to aspirin. Acetaminophen avoids many of the side effects of opioids and NSAIDs b­ut carries its own risk with liver toxicity.

Efficacy in acute pain

Since the development of acetaminophen, medical professionals have had the choice of three different classes of medications when treating pain. Those decisions are usually made by considering the perceived effectiveness of each medicine and its side effects along with the physical status of the patient. For example, acetaminophen should not be taken by someone with advanced liver damage; NSAIDs should not be given to an individual with advanced kidney disease or stomach ulcers; and opioids pose a potential risk to anyone with a personal or family history of addiction.

Although many have long been believed that opioids are the strongest pain medications and should be used for more severe pain, scientific literature does not support that belief. There are many other treatments that should be utilized for treating pain. Studies have shown NSAIDs are just as strong as the opioids.

Number needed to treat

When considering the effectiveness or the strength of pain medications, it is important to understand one of the statistical measures used in clinical studies: the number needed to treat (NNT). NNT is the number of people who must be treated by a specific intervention for one person to receive a certain effect. For example, when testing pain medications, the intervention is the dose of pain medication, and the effect is usually 50% pain relief. That is considered effective treatment, allowing people increased functional abilities and an improved quality of life (Cochrane. org, 2014). So the question becomes, how many people must be treated with a certain dose of a medication for one person to receive 50% pain relief (effective relief)?

A lower NNT means the medicine is more effective. A product with an NNT of 1 means that the medicine is 100% effective at reducing pain by 50% — everyone who takes the medicine has effective pain relief. A medicine with an NNT of 2 means two people must be treated for one to receive effective relief. Or, alternatively, one out of two, or 50%, of people who take the medicine get effective pain relief. An example of a medicine that would not be a good pain reliever would be one with a NNT equal to 10. In such a case, you would have to treat 10 people for one to receive effective pain relief. Basically, the medication with the lowest NNT will be the most effective. For oral pain medications, an NNT of 1.5 is very good, and an NNT of 2.5 would be considered good.

Treating chronic pain

Despite the widespread use of opioid medications to treat chronic pain, there is no significant evidence to support this practice. A recent article reviewing the evidence regarding the use of opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain concluded, “There is no high-quality evidence on the efficacy of long-term opioid treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain.” (Kissin, 2013, p. 519) A recent Cochrane review comparing opioids with placebo in the treatment of low back pain came to a similar conclusion. This review said that there may be some benefit over placebo when used for short-term treatment, but no evidence shows that opioids are helpful when used for longer than four months. There is no evidence of benefit over non-opioid medications when used for less than four months. (Chaparro et al., 2014)

Several other reviews have also concluded that no evidence exists to support long-term use – longer than four months – of opioids to treat chronic pain. (Kissin, 2013; Martell et al., 2007; McNicol, Midbari, & Eisenberg, 2013; Noble et al., 2010)

Epidemiologic studies have also failed to confirm the efficacy of chronic opioid therapy (COT) for chronic non-cancer pain. A large study from Denmark showed that those with chronic pain who were on COT had higher levels of pain, had poorer quality of life and were less functional than those with chronic pain who were not on COT. (Eriksen, Sj.gren, Bruera, Ekholm, & Rasmussen, 2006)

In the last 20 years in the U.S., we have increased our consumption of opioids by more than 600%. (Paulozzi & Baldwin, 2012) Despite this increase, we have not decreased our suffering from pain. The Burden of Disease study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that Americans suffered as much disability from back and neck pain in 2010 as they did in 1990 before the escalation in the prescribing of opioids. (Murray, 2013) A study in JAMA in 2008 found, “Despite rapidly increasing medical expenditures from 1997 to 2005, there was no improvement over this period in self-assessed health status, functional disability, work limitations or social functioning among respondents with spine problems.” (Martin et al., 2008, p. 661)

It is currently estimated that more than 9 million Americans use COT for the treatment of chronic nonmalignant pain (Boudreau et al., 2009). When we consider the proven benefits of this treatment along with the known risks, we must ask ourselves how we can ethically continue this treatment.

The reality is we really don’t know if COT is effective. Anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest it may be beneficial in a few, select people. However, epidemiologic studies suggest that it may be doing more harm than good.

Terminal care

The treatment of incurable cancer, end-stage lung disease and other end-of-life situations are notable examples where opioid medications are absolutely indicated. Although opioid painkillers are not very good medications for the treatment of pain, they are very strong psychotherapeutic agents. They are excellent at relieving anxiety and treating depression for a limited time. Opioids cause beneficial changes to brain serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins. For short-term, end-of-life situations, these neuropsychiatric effects are likely beneficial. For terminal care, opioids are the medications of choice.

Conclusion

The opioid medications are often referred to as “powerful painkillers.” In fact, the evidence shows that they are mild to moderate painkillers and less effective than over-the-counter ibuprofen. They have, however, powerful side effects that harm hundreds of thousands of individuals every year in the U.S. Even if one disregards the public health problems created by the use of opioid painkillers, these medications still are not a good choice for the treatment of acute pain — regardless of the severity. In some situations, limited use is appropriate. But in the majority of situations in which opioid painkillers are used today, they are not appropriate.

The standard of care in the practice of medicine today is to provide the best treatment that causes the least harm. When there is a treatment that is proven to be both more effective and safer, it is the treatment of choice. The implication of this data for policymakers is critical. By implementing policy that puts restrictions on opioid prescribing to protect public health, policymakers will also improve the treatment of pain by guiding prescribers to use medications that are more effective. It is also important for the medical and dental communities to address this inadequate and unsafe treatment of pain and change practice standards to guide care that is more appropriate for what our patients need and deserve.

This is an excerpt from a paper that can be downloaded in its entirety from the National Safety Council.

Four Risk Management Tips For Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Prevention

A wealth of tips can be found for the prevention of medical malpractice lawsuits, but the truth is, there is no way to prevent someone from filing a lawsuit for malpractice. However, there are many things that can be done which can lessen the risks of a patient wanting to sue, as well as greatly reducing the likelihood of losing such a lawsuit, should one be filed.

The following tips can be part of an effective risk management program. If you don’t already have an aggressive risk management program in place at your practice or healthcare facility, you are statistically more likely to be the target of such a suit and more at risk of being unable to successfully defend against one.

The potential for being named in a malpractice lawsuit has nothing to do with your level of expertise, previous success rate or where you studied medicine. The fact is that a lawsuit may be brought against you even though no error was made or as a result of a situation which no physician could reasonably foresee. And there is certainly no shortage of cases in which the named physician was blameless, but actions (or inactions) by others created an issue. As a medical practitioner, you can still find yourself named in a malpractice lawsuit despite your best efforts to protect your patients and yourself.

So the ultimate tip would be: simply ensure that no mistakes are made. While you may say, “more easily said than done,” this is where a comprehensive risk management program can literally save your future and that of your practice.

Risk management programs actually help in two distinct fashions:

  1. They afford you and your staff the opportunity to proactively avoid mistakes that could lead to a medical malpractice claim.
  2. When properly implemented and enforced, they demonstrate a proactive effort to ensure high quality of patient care. This can greatly reduce, or even eliminate, your liability in the event of litigation.

If you have ever had to endure a malpractice claim, you were probably inundated with advice, after the fact. You may have heeded that advice going forward. But as hindsight, it did you no good at the time.

A risk management specialist can offer you that advice now, before you are faced with the ugly realities of a malpractice lawsuit. Find one that specializes in helping his clients avoid, rather than settle.

Meanwhile, here are four tips describing measures that you can implement to lessen your risk:

1. Audit
Review the standards and practices employed by yourself and your staff. Ideally, this is best undertaken by a disinterested third party service, specializing in med-mal risk management. It should involve a meticulous analysis of all potential risks, such as patient care, equipment certification and maintenance, procedures, checks and verifications, records … virtually any other aspect which has the potential of contributing to a breakdown in the quality of care provided.

Understandably, there are a great many aspects of your practice that can fall into this category. They should all be examined, and the audit team will evaluate the risk of each, making specific recommendations to mitigate those risks and assist you in establishing procedures to ensure ongoing implementation of corrective measures.

2. Training
Training is the heart of risk management. Regardless of whether all your staff carries their own med-mal insurance coverage, the buck will stop with the physician that owns the practice, regardless of who might be found at fault. Your staff must be thoroughly familiar with your risk management measures, understand their importance and know that total compliance is essential. You, as the responsible physician, must enforce that compliance.

3. Stress Test
This refers to performing an analysis of past small claims that may have been settled out of court, or hypothetical issues that seem possible, after viewing vulnerabilities in a practice’s procedures. The process helps identify areas that are weak, either procedurally or in compliance, and can provide valuable assistance in strengthening your practice’s risk management posture.

4. Accreditation
Achieving accreditation by an independent organization such as JCAHO (Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations), which performs periodic on-site surveys of procedures and compliance, can be very helpful in maintaining both awareness of and compliance with established risk management measures.

The Benefits
Adding these four measures to your practice’s toolset can prevent mishaps, while strengthening your position in the event of a formal lawsuit. It also offers the obvious benefit of helping you maintain high standards of patient care, and can be instrumental in lowering insurance premiums, due to the attendant reduction in claims.

Some claims can result in litigation, of course, in spite of your best efforts to avoid them. But having an exacting risk management program in practice will reduce your vulnerability a great deal and facilitate a successful defense. It will also offer the additional benefit of helping you find ways to improve the quality of care your practice provides.