Tag Archives: patient care

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.


Urgency of Rising Medicare Fraud

Ho-hum: The FBI arrested 46 doctors and nurses…largest Medicare fraud bust ever.

That is from a headline in a recent CNN story. Seems the thieving doctors and nurses got away with $712 million before getting busted.

Per the story, “In total, 243 people were arrested in 17 cities for allegedly billing Medicare for $712 million worth of patient care that was never given or unnecessary.”

Note the word “unnecessary.” If there are doctors and nurses doing this to Medicare patients, they are defrauding self-insured benefit plan patients, too.

This has been getting worse and worse every year for 20 or so years. I say “ho-hum” at the beginning of this post because almost no one in the private sector takes stopping this kind of thing seriously. There is a lot of talk and little action.

I urge readers to start taking steps to stop this mess.

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.

Is Baseline Testing Worth It? (Part 2)

In our first article on this subject, we gave an overview of baseline testing, compared it with a post-offer physical exam, updated recent legal decisions under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that allow baseline testing and concluded with a legal case highlighting the benefits of a baseline program. While all stakeholders won in the case we cited, we all need to remember that the focus in workers’ comp needs to be the injured worker.

That isn’t always the case, as recent court rulings have shown. Last week, a Pottawatomie County judge in Oklahoma issued a ruling that may erode the exclusive remedy provision for workers’ compensation (Duck vs Morgan Tire). This ruling comes after Miami-Dade District Judge Jorge Cueto ruled in August that the exclusive-remedy provision of the state’s comp statute was unconstitutional. Both cases make a strong case that the rights of injured workers have been deteriorating and that workers no longer have enough protection. (The cases are under appeal.)

The workers’ compensation system is overburdened with red tape: In some states, there are onerous mandates for doctors, delays in legal proceedings, disputes over acceptance of cases…and on and on. An injured person is caught in the middle. Frequently, necessary care is delayed — which often results in even greater damage and costs. Carriers and employers are frustrated, too. With increasing federal mandates complicating this already tangled system, they feel they are being asked to accept claims that “aren’t ours.” They worry about liability and uncontrolled costs, even while knowing that delaying appropriate care can lead to prolonged disability, inefficient medical care and higher costs.

So the question remains: How do we do the best for the injured worker while protecting ourselves?

This article focuses on the heart of the matter: Better diagnosis leads to better patient care. Peel away the layers of comp laws and reforms, and this is what the industry should be about.

Baseline testing helps identify a change in condition, so the person can get the best care possible for work-related injuries. Does this actually happen? Does baseline testing work with soft-tissue injuries, specifically those that appear to be based on subjective complaints, with typically little or no objective findings? (Soft-tissue injuries, although often unsupported by clear and convincing evidence, are the leading drivers of cost in the system.)

Here is a case that shows that it’s possible to use baseline testing to avoid over-treating or under-treating and to do the right thing:

Mr. Jones works for the same employer as was mentioned in Part 1 of this article. He is 34 years old and is employed as truck driver. He underwent a baseline test in June 2014 and was injured at work in September 2014. He was driving his truck when he hit a bump. He was wearing a seat belt but hit his head. He continued to work. He later felt diffuse neck pain and reported the incident.

The following day, he saw a doctor, who couldn’t issue a diagnosis. Mr. Jones had a history of chronic neck pain, so the doctor couldn’t tell if anything was “new.” He thought the pain would go away, but it persisted.

Because Mr. Jones had undergone a baseline evaluation, he was sent for the post-incident, electrodiagnostic functional assessment (EFA). The comparison of the two evaluations revealed a change in condition. The testing indicated he could have an industrially related left cervical radiculopathy. Treatment was redirected to this area, and he received the appropriate care on an expedited basis.

This is a person who had diffuse pathology and a substantial pre-existing condition. As a result, his workman’s comp carrier delayed care, and he pursued treatment by his chiropractor on a non-industrial basis. He was off work, not receiving benefits, while waiting for the causation of his injury to be determined. He potentially could have gotten lost in the system with unresolved treatment and escalating bills while without benefits and out of work.

The employer truly wants the best care for its injured workers and, as soon as the comparison demonstrated a change, ensured that he received all the appropriate care and benefits for his work-related injury.

We truly believe that everyone in this workers’ compensation system wants to do the “right thing” but that is hard to do without objective evidence. Accurate diagnoses lead to better patient care, which is the very basis of workers’ compensation. So is baseline testing really worth the effort? You bet it is!

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.


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.