Tag Archives: spine

Blockbuster Opinion on Apportionment

The Court of Appeals in the 3rd District has issued a blockbuster opinion on apportionment in City of Jackson v W.C.A.B. (Rice) regarding the requirements for substantial medical evidence in worker’ compensation cases. In reversing the W.C.A.B., the court laid out its analysis of why a QME’s apportionment to genetic factors was well supported and legally sufficient.

The applicant in this case was a 29-year-old, police officer who developed cervical spine pain, resulting in the need for surgery. He was evaluated by QME Sloan Blair MD on multiple occasions. Dr. Blair apportioned applicant’s disability to multiple factors, including 17% each to his employment with the city, to prior employment and to personal activities. The remaining 49% was apportioned to his personal history, including “genetic issues.” In response to a request for supplemental report from the applicant attorney, Dr. Blair further clarified the basis for her opinion:

“…“to a reasonable degree of medical probability that genetics has played a role in Mr. Rice’s injury,” despite the fact that there is no way to test for genetic factors. Citing the referenced medical studies, Dr. Blair stated that one of them said “heritability was . . . 73 percent in the cervical spine. . . . [S]moking, age, and work are only a small percentage of disc disease and most of it is familial.” Another source cited the role of heritability in disc degeneration as 75 percent, and the other stated it was 73 percent. Dr. Blair cited a fourth article that claimed, “ ‘[t]win studies demonstrate that degeneration in adults may be explained up to 75 percent by genes alone.’ ” The same study found environmental factors to contribute little or not at all. Dr. Blair stated that while these studies supported an apportionment of 75 percent to personal history, she decided to err on the side of the patient in case there was some unknown “inherent weakness” in the study, and decided that 49 percent was the “lowest level that could reasonably be stated…”

The WCJ accepted Dr. Blair’s apportionment to genetic factors but rejected the other apportionment awarding PD based on 51% industrial causation. On reconsideration, the W.C.A.B. reversed, asserting Dr. Blair’s apportionment to genetic factors resulted in an allocation of disability to impermissible immutable factors and not to “specific identifiable factors” and was therefore not substantial evidence.

See also: 3rd District Upholds Validity of IMR  

The 3rd District took issue with the W.C.A.B.’s entire analysis of this apportionment issue. Noting the specific intent of SB 899 to allow apportionment to “other factors,” the court went through multiple W.C.A.B. and appellate court decisions on apportionment and could find little to distinguish apportionment on the basis of degenerative joint disease, asymptomatic prior conditions etc. The court specifically rejected the W.C.A.B.’s reference to “impermissible immutable factors,”  commenting as follows:

“…Precluding apportionment based on “impermissible immutable factors” would preclude apportionment based on the very factors that the legislation now permits, i.e., apportionment based on pathology and asymptomatic prior conditions for which the worker has an inherited predisposition. 

The Court pointed to several instances where medical evidence relied on apportionment to genetic dispositions to develop medical conditions, citing the Kos v W.C.A.B., Escobedo and Acme Steel cases and further noting:

“…We perceive no relevant distinction between allowing apportionment based on a preexisting congenital or pathological condition and allowing apportionment based on a preexisting degenerative condition caused by heredity or genetics.”

The court also rejected the W.C.A.B.’s analysis that Dr. Blair’s reliance on the applicant’s genetic makeup resulted in apportionment to the causation of injury rather than the causation of disability. The court pointed out the cause of the injury was repetitive motion, not genetics. Rather, Dr. Blair commented that the applicant’s disability was caused by a combination of factors, including a significant contribution from his genetic makeup..

The court was also not put off by the QME’s reliance on medical literature to support her conclusion rather than on a specific history from the applicant of his genetic makeup or background. As noted by the court, the doctor’s conclusion was supported by significant, unrebutted medical literature that found degenerative disc disease was influenced significantly by genetic factors and only minimally to environmental factors such as work activity. The court points out that the research relied upon by Dr. Blair supported the conclusion that as much as 75% of all DDD was related to genetics, and the issue was not whether one could prove that the genetic factor existed; the existence of significant DDD established the genetic factor as present.

“Dr. Blair’s reports meet all of the requirements of Escobedo. Dr. Blair expressly stated that confidence in her opinion was predicated on reasonable degree of medical probability. Dr. Blair gave the reasoning behind her opinion–the published medical studies–and even named the studies and the pages relied upon. Her opinion disclosed familiarity with the concept of apportionment. Labor Code section 4663 states that apportionment is based on causation, and that “[a] physician shall make an apportionment determination by finding what approximate percentage of the permanent disability was caused by the direct result of injury arising out of and occurring in the course of employment and what approximate percentage of the permanent disability was caused by other factors . . . .”  (Lab. Code, § 4663, subd. (c).)”

The case was remanded to the W.C.A.B. to issue an opinion based upon the QME’s conclusions.

Comments and Conclusions:

Assuming this decision holds up — it is certainly likely to be appealed further — it dramatically reinforces the rules on apportionment to any relevant factors that a physician can identify with reasonable medical probability.

There are some unusual circumstances in this case that may have played a role in the ultimate outcome. First, the applicant was relatively young to have significant DDD, only 29 years old. That fact probably tipped Dr. Blair off that there was something about the condition that could not be attributed to environmental factors, including work. Second, the length of employment as a peace office was not lengthy; the applicant had worked less than five years in a full-time capacity. There had not been a lot of time to attribute causation to work activity.

There is also fairly strong support in the medical literature that DDD is not really activity-related. Other than studies that suggest whole body vibration is a significant factor, there is little to suggest that bending, lifting and stooping, without significant trauma, plays any role in the development of disc disease.

The situation is much like carpal tunnel syndrome, where the medical literature overwhelming fails to demonstrate a relationship between computer usage and the disease process, and yet we still routinely get compensable reports without any real support in the medical literature. Spine pain is constantly related to even relatively benign work activities as a matter of course.

Clearly, defense attorneys need to start appearing at doctor depos armed with the literature cited by Dr. Blair and challenge physicians to provide a basis for their unapportioned or minimally apportionment spine CT claims, especially in younger individuals.

See also: Intelligent WC Medical Management  

This decision may have even broader applications in non-orthopedic cases. We have a wealth of literature about causation of various internal medicine conditions and even psychiatric conditions attributable to genetic, historical and environmental factors that now can more carefully be considered to support apportionment where previously the W.C.A.B. had been rejecting such opinions. The issue of whether there can be apportionment to genetic factors or predispositions would appear to be resolved in the affirmative in this case.

The Truth About Treating Low Back Pain

There is overwhelming medical evidence that many diagnostic tests, treatments and surgeries for low back pain are ineffective and waste many billions of dollars a year in the U.S. alone. Yet treatment appears not only to be continuing but seems to be growing and becoming more aggressive. The aggressive treatment of low back pain has become epidemic.

Medical studies on the problem of low back pain were widely reported in the mainstream media in 2007 and 2008. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other national publications like Time magazine reported on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study that said Americans, “were spending more money than ever to treat spine problems, but their backs were not getting any better.”

The study documented common mistakes doctors make when treating back pain, including:

  • Ordering excessive X-rays , MRIs and CT scans
  • Performing invasive surgery too soon
  • Failing to educate patients about surgical alternatives
  • Failing to address underlying mental health issues

Also released in 2007 was The State of Health Care Quality report published by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). It stated, “back injuries often undergo aggressive treatment when less costly and less complicated therapy may yield similar or better results.”

The NCQA report said that the vast majority of patients with low back pain have no identifiable cause of their symptoms and that less than 1% of X-rays provide useful information regarding the diagnosis of low back pain. Similarly, MRI and CT scanning usually fail to shed light on the causes of low back pain, except when there are red flags such as trauma or indicators for specific diseases. The authors stated that, “Needless tests and procedures that provide no real benefit to the patient can’t do anything but harm.”

The JAMA study also noted the widespread use of needless testing and found that 25% of the patients covered by private health insurance had an inappropriate imaging study, costing, in the aggregate, billions of dollars each year.

There is a wealth of medical evidence that most back and neck pain should be treated sparingly. An editorial in Spine Journal suggested that more than 200 treatments for chronic back pain are currently available in the clinical marketplace and that many of those “do not have a definitive track record in scientific studies.”

The authors of the JAMA study concluded: “If we keep our diagnostic and treatment efforts within well-proven limits, and emphasize the importance of activity and self-care, we suspect we would see better outcomes.”

Yet the total number of some spine treatments — e.g., spinal fusion surgery, spinal injections and the prescription of opiates — has skyrocketed in recent years, according to medical researchers.

There are many potential reasons for this spurt in back treatments, including the heavy commercialization and direct consumer marketing of treatments both old and new. It is hard to read a newspaper, watch TV or surf the Internet without seeing a commercial pop up for the latest treatment for low back pain.

Obviously, there is a lack of definitive evidence regarding many popular treatments, which allows them free rein in the marketplace before the risks and benefits can be scientifically studied and documented.

The JAMA study stated that 60% or more of initial back surgeries have successful outcomes. I am pretty good at math, so that means 40% DO NOT!  The study’s authors estimated that the 40% equates to 80,000 “failed back surgeries” a year.

The researchers also observed that the surgical success rate drops to 30% after the second surgery, 15% after a third and 5% after a fourth. The authors believed that many patients were under the care of physicians, “who are unfamiliar with the conditions leading to back surgery, the types of back surgery available and the best approaches to diagnosis and management.”

The annual medical cost to American businesses because of low back pain was estimated to be $90 billion in 2008.  This does not include the cost of related workers' comp or disability benefits, which also are in the billions, nor indirect costs such as lost productivity.

The medical studies have confirmed what I have known and studied for the past 33 years: Much of the money spent on healthcare — approximately one-third — is wasted on medically unnecessary and potentially harmful procedures.

What has changed in the treatment of low back pain since the release of the studies in 2008?

My bet: Not so much.

In fact, some medical researchers have stated the situation has gotten worse, not better, and that they have not been able to keep up with all the latest trends and back treatments available today.