Perhaps the most vexing problem with IMEs is the conflation of correlation with causation. Nowhere is this more frustrating than in the case of symptomatic aggravation of (usually) degenerative arthritis of the shoulder, knee, and back. The classic scenario is something like this: employee is at work, suffers some sort of traumatic injury. Employee goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with a strain. Employee continues going to the doctor and says my shoulder/knee/back still hurts and it never hurt before the accident. Doctor then concludes that the accident caused a symptomatic aggravation of a preexisting degenerative condition. In Wisconsin parlance, the injury precipitated, aggravated, and accelerated a definitely preexisting, degenerative condition beyond its normal progression. Illinois, being less inclined to the prolix than its northern neighbor, simply would say the injury aggravated a preexisting condition. Either way, such claims are challenging because the ALJ or the Arbitrator sees an employee without symptomatic complaints before a work injury and symptomatic complaints after a work injury, causing her to conclude that the work injury aggravated the preexisting condition which is causing the ongoing symptoms. Frankly, it is normal for anyone faced with such facts to conclude that the correlation of reported symptom onset with a work injury means that the work injury caused the symptom onset. This is simply the way our minds process and make sense of the world: evolutionarily, it would have been better not to eat the fruit that you got sick shortly after eating than to question whether the fruit was in fact the cause of the illness.
The trick, of course, is how to combat this natural tendency to conflate correlation and causation. Often the only chance to do so is through the independent medical examination. Many physicians, when they look at a case objectively from the perspective of an independent third party, will conclude that a minor work injury causing only a strain to a joint and its surrounding structures cannot cause the symptomatic aggravation of preexisting arthritis. Regardless, the crucial factor is how the doctor explains the reason or reasons for his opinion. And independent expert who simply states that a minor injury was of an insufficient magnitude to cause permanent, symptomatic aggravation of preexisting arthritis is not likely to carry the day. It may be perfectly clear to the expert as to why the minor injury could not have caused the ongoing symptoms, but it will not be similarly clear to the ALJ or the Arbitrator without a more detailed explanation.
To convince the ALJ or the Arbitrator, the expert must provide a sufficient explanation of why the injury could not have caused the ongoing symptoms. This is where claims and legal professionals can make a substantial difference. All persons have experiences that render them especially competent in various aspects of their lives. For some it may be simply in the personal, i.e. facility with one’s social network and the vast amount of information necessary to negotiate it fluidly and with limited effort. For others, like independent medical experts, it may be highly targeted and professional, i.e. the neurosurgeon with expertise in syringomyelia. In either case, when a person speaks about a topic on which he possesses a wealth of knowledge that is both current and relevant, he often forgets to detail the assumptions or facts on which his opinion is based when speaking with strangers, the uninitiated, or laypersons. For example, a person may say to another that Sarah would never be interested in Brendan. To the friend, it may be perfectly understandable why: both parties know Sarah is conservative and values financial stability in a partner while Brendan is an underemployed artist for whom there can never be too much body art and modification. The stranger who does not know Sarah and Brendan would wonder why. The only thing that could possibly support the opinion is the trustworthiness of the speaker. The stranger would not know why Sarah would never be interested in Brendan unless the speaker explained the facts on which his opinion is based.
The mechanics of IME credibility work similarly. Medical experts are used to speaking about patients with other medical experts. These experts share a common education and professional background acquired over thousands and thousands of hours of training and practice. Hence, when an orthopedic surgeon sees a patient with a minor knee strain and concludes the injury was of an insufficient magnitude to cause permanent, symptomatic aggravation of arthritis, other orthopedic surgeons will immediately understand why based on their training, experience, and review of the medical records. No further information is required to make the opinion more intelligible or more credible.
The problem is that ALJs and Arbitrators are not trained orthopedic surgeons. They may have read hundreds of IME reports and countless medical records, but they are not physicians, do not have the same level of knowledge, and have not actually treated actual patients with arthritis. Hence, ALJs and Arbitrators lack the requisite level of knowledge to automatically fill in the blanks that the statement leaves open. Like the Sarah and Brendan case, the speaker (our medical expert), must explain why the opinion is accurate.
And this is where the claims and legal professionals come in: one of the best ways to ensure that the expert provides at least some explanation for her opinion is simply to ask for an explanation of why in the cover letter. We frequently encounter the following question or a near variation:
If the work incident did not directly cause the condition, did the work injury precipitate, aggravate, and accelerate a definitely preexisting, degenerative condition beyond normal progression?
We rarely, however, encounter any follow-up such as:
If you conclude the work incident did not directly cause the condition or aggravate a preexisting condition beyond normal progression, please explain why the current condition is unrelated to the work incident.
At a minimum, this follow-up typically results in the physician offering something more than a conclusory statement. And if specific information is sought, one could probe further and ask, for example, whether any peer-reviewed, Level I studies support the expert’s conclusion. Regardless, even asking the basic “why” question is likely to result in a more detailed, credible explanation of the expert’s opinion than not asking the question.
So what is the answer to how to convince an ALJ or an Arbitrator that a strain followed by symptomatic arthritis reflects correlation but not causation? The best reports we have seen address the issue head-on and contain some, if not all, of the following explanations. First, arthritic pain complaints often do not prompt independent medical visits until the condition becomes relatively severe. In the case of a work injury, the patient is in a treatment setting and is asked as a part of each visit, “How does your knee/shoulder/ back feel?” Once the strain has healed, a person with underlying symptomatic arthritis will report ongoing pain. This doesn’t mean that the same pain or discomfort was not present before the work injury, but now patient and treating physician alike associate the ongoing symptoms with the work injury, even though the association, absent further evidence is fallacious, an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
Second, the best reports explain that the injury resulted in no structural damage to the joint and that the available imaging studies demonstrate degenerative changes that would have taken many months and more likely years to develop. The experts then explain that a traumatic injury causing a permanent aggravation of the condition would most likely have resulted in different findings on the imaging studies. Further, the most effective opinions will cite to relevant medical literature demonstrating that symptomatic arthritis usually develops insidiously and almost certainly unrelated to a minor, temporary injury.
Third, most permanent aggravation claims arise in workers who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. The best opinions will identify age alone as the single biggest risk factor in developing arthritis. The most effective opinions will also explain that the onset of symptomatic arthritis was highly likely given the person’s age and, as is often the case, the person’s weight, deconditioning, and sedentary lifestyle. If possible, the best opinions will point to and explain how other individual characteristics such as an excessive valgus alignment in a knee case that predisposes the worker to arthritis. The expert will then explain why all of these characteristics (age, weight, etc.) are responsible for causing the symptomatic arthritis and how the appearance of symptoms after a work injury is purely coincidental.
Finally, the best reports will explain what causes arthritis (erosion of cartilage) and how a minor strain without evidence of structural damage cannot cause further erosion of cartilage that leads to the onset of symptoms. When cartilage erodes, the articulating surface of the bones in the joint rub together. The damaged joint tissue and associated inflammation cause arthritic pain. It is then explained that a minor strain causing no discernible changes in the joint tissues affected by arthritis cannot have caused the arthritic symptoms.
In this way, the expert report explains how the correlation of symptomatic arthritis with a work injury is coincidental and not causal. Even so, not every such expert report will carry the day. Nevertheless, if one is to have a chance, the medical expert cannot simply state her opinion but must explain why it is her opinion based on the relevant medical records, her experience, and any supporting medical literature. Otherwise, like per capita mozzarella cheese consumption and civil engineering degrees awarded, we could mistakenly believe that correlation is causation. So ask the expert “why”, there is a good chance it will pay dividends.
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