January 28, 2015
Did the Work Comp Nurse Make It Worse?
They can cause disasters if not incorporated thoroughly into the team handling a claim -- or they can provide crucial assistance.
Case management nurses can unwittingly hinder the control of workers’ comp claims. Consider the perfect storm of “assumptions” leading to disaster: An adjuster receives a claim requiring extended treatment, makes the standard screen-clicks to assign a nurse and logs the claim in the diary. The employer assumes the case is being scrutinized and treatment is being managed. The adjuster assumes it is okay to ignore the case for a while. The nurse takes the initial claim information at something approaching face value.
In these situations, many nurses act but don’t interact. They assist with referrals and expedite the collection of medical information. Unfortunately, they may not use their clinical acumen on critical issues like compensability, diagnosis, causal relationship, return to work (RTW) and treatment plans. We should note that nurses must balance caseloads and respect their company’s requirements for speed. As such, they might feel justified in expediting what appears to be a common assignment.
When it comes to referrals, a well-intentioned nurse can cause disaster. I have experienced all of the following: a claimant alleging breathing issues referred to a “sick building expert”; a claimant with negligible head trauma to a “closed head injury specialist”; a claimant alleging jaw pain to a “TMJ dentist”; and the ever popular referral of a claimant with mysterious pains to a “chronic pain specialist.”
These real examples all involved highly questionable claimants. Needless to say, medical expert “hammers” saw perfect “nails” in each claimant and fully validated the conditions and the causal relationship each alleged. By the time of the next adjuster diary, it was all over but for the increase in reserves.
The claimant can steal control of a case and contrive subjective medical issues if a nurse simply collects doctor reports and fails to interact. Countless WC case files exist where medical notes are simply pasted in by the nurse. (As far as I am concerned, this indicates adjuster/employer failure and not necessarily a poor nurse.)
I have witnessed nurse case managers decline to intervene in RTW efforts, and the corporate nurse care management entity can, conveniently, relieve itself of RTW responsibilities without affecting its fixed fee. I would argue that some level of RTW support from a nurse can and should exist on any given case in any jurisdiction.
Quick Tip: You and Your Adjuster Must Engage and Direct Nurse Assignments
A nurse should be vital in selecting providers for specialist evaluation or independent medical exams (IMEs). However, the nurse needs the insight and outlook that can only be gained by communication and planning. Engage the nurse and explain all the case issues and concerns. Compare providers and agree on who might be most appropriate. Agree on the specific background, insight and questions to be given to this provider. An early conference call should be mandatory.
The nurse should be an active member of the claim team, including adjuster, employer, defense counsel, Medicare medical savings account (MSA) vendor and, in certain cases, the special investigative unit (SIU). Nurse contributions should be vital to team decisions and strategy.
Make certain the nurse case management fee-structure allows extended work, as a claim might require. Reconfigure if necessary to ensure nurses can spend adequate time where needed.
A nurse should be asked to evaluate, comment and make suggestions based on all medical info collected. This insight can be used by the team to make tactical and strategic decisions.
A nurse is most useful for assessing the claimant on a personal level. The nurse should be sought for oral comment on impressions and gut feelings based on interaction with the claimant. Written assessments, which are subject to discovery in legal proceedings, need to be subtle and are not as meaningful. Therefore, conference calls on an interim basis are critical for gaining powerful nurse insight.
Nurses should absolutely support RTW efforts, either at most by collecting potential jobs from the employer and sharing these directly with the employee and doctor or at minimum by reminding the doctor that the employer has a RTW program and expects participation. Somewhere along this range of support should fit any jurisdiction.
Nurses are great tactical tools against unwieldy claimants. They can relay important details and extraneous issues to a physician that can affect causation determinations and reliability assessment of subjective symptoms. Nurses give doctors an “option B” of facts and background when doctors otherwise would only consider “option A,” as relayed by a claimant. Without an “option B,” doctors are more likely to give a claimant benefit of the doubt.
Most important: The power of case management nurses is wasted if you do not provide specific insight, direction and expectation for each claim assigned.