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How to Identify Psychosocial Risks

We know that early intervention is critical to prevent delayed recoveries for injured workers. One of the challenges has been to identify those at higher risk of poor outcomes.

Fortunately, we have the tools to determine which patients are more likely to develop chronic pain and languish in a disability mindset. The process is fairly simple and backed by strong, research-based evidence. With increased awareness among payers, providers and other industry stakeholders, we can prevent creeping catastrophic claims, help injured workers regain function quicker and significantly reduce workers’ compensation costs.

Reasons for Getting Stuck

Psychosocial risk factors used to be little more than a buzz term among workers’ compensation professionals. While those of us who’ve worked extensively with chronic pain patients understood that psychological issues can easily derail a workers’ compensation claim, the research that proves this to be true has become widespread only in recent years.

In fact, some of the most recent research says that psychological factors can be more of a predictor of poor outcomes than the underlying medical conditions. We now know for certain that the biomedical model of disease does not hold true for everyone, and the biopsychosocial model of illness must be considered.

Where the first is based on the idea that a physical ailment can be cured through medical solutions, the second acknowledges that some people have an underlying psychobiological dysfunction that has clinically significant distress or disability. They are the injured workers who can greatly benefit from early identification and intervention.

Inadequate coping skills and a lack of knowledge of what is causing their pain can drive delayed recoveries and overuse of treatments and medications. Chronic pain is the final common pathway of this delayed recovery.

See also: A Biopsychosocial Approach to Recovery  

Research validated through meta analyses, prospective studies and control group studies shows that injured workers with delayed recoveries typically have:

  • Catastrophic thinking
  • A history of anxiety or depression
  • Anger and perceived injustice about their plight
  • An external locus of control
  • Minimal resilience

They may also have fear avoidance, meaning they engage in little to no physical activity out of fear they will injure themselves more and experience increased pain.

There are myriad reasons why some people have these issues. The cause could be childhood and life experiences, their relationship and interactions with their environments, issues in the workplace or home or other reasons altogether. It’s important that we identify injured workers with these issues as soon as possible after their injuries.

Pain Screening Questionnaires

One of the most effective ways to pinpoint injured workers with psychological issues is through specially designed, self-administered questionnaires. The one we use to identify patients at risk of developing chronic pain and disability is the Pain Screening Questionnaire (PSQ).

The PSQ was developed by a Swedish professor of clinical psychology and is used in many countries. It has been shown through studies to accurately predict time loss, medical spending and function — but not pain.

The PSQ takes about five minutes to complete and consists of 21 questions that focus on the injured worker’s:

  • Pain attitudes, beliefs and perceptions
  • Catastrophizing
  • Perception of work
  • Mood/affect
  • Behavioral response to pain
  • Activities of daily living

The injured worker is asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 things such as, “How would you rate the pain you have had during the past week?”; “In your view, how large is the risk that your current pain may become permanent?”; and “An increase in pain is an indication that I should stop what I’m doing until the pain decreases.”

Depending on the score, the injured worker is categorized as low risk, moderate risk, high risk, or very high risk. Those on the lower end of the scale are most appropriately managed through take-home educational materials on chronic pain. Moderate-risk injured workers are good prospects for a self-managed workbook style intervention. High- and very-high-risk injured workers should be referred for additional assessment and an intervention program, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

See also: Impact on Mental Health in Work Comp  

In a program of early identification and intervention, Albertson’s Safeway found 12% of injured workers scored high. Those affected were referred to CBT. After an average of just six CBT sessions, a large percentage of them were able to return to work. Because of the results, primary treating physicians who work with Albertson’s injured workers have been referring them to the program earlier in the claims process.

Conclusion

It is estimated that 10% of workers’ compensation claims consume at least 80% of medical and indemnity resources. The vast majority of these are injured workers with delayed recoveries due to psychosocial risk factors.

With solid science backing up the successful identification and interventions of these employees, we can prevent needless disability and substantially reduce workers’ compensation costs.