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Mild traumatic brain injury claims may well be the most vexing for claims professionals. They usually involve comparatively minor incidents for which little objective testing exists and they are frequently entangled with psychological co-morbidities which further complicate matters. In addition, the chief method to diagnose and assess mild traumatic brain injury involves subjective reports and evaluations of cognitive symptoms and functioning, making these claims particularly susceptible to exaggeration, malingering, and fraud.
The mild traumatic brain injury paradox is that those who are often at greatest risk of reinjury are often the most eager to return to the risky activity while those with the lowest risk of reinjury are most concerned about returning even to the activities of everyday life. Hence, the competitive athlete will mask symptoms in an effort to return to the playing field as quickly as possible while the truck driver who pulled an overhead trailer door onto his head may complain of cognitive symptoms for weeks or even months to avoid returning to work. The subjective nature of diagnosis and assessment makes it difficult for medical professionals to know when the athlete is not ready to return to competitive play and simultaneously when the truck driver is ready to return to work.
Unfortunately, recent research muddies the water and makes the development of an objective test for traumatic brain injury all the more important. In a study presented to the American Radiological Society, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that persons suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries demonstrated neuropathology on MRI scans days after their cognitive functioning returned to baseline. This is a potential problem because it is generally accepted that injured neurons subjected to a second trauma before they are healed are at risk of significant and permanent injury; further, the traditional mechanism for assessing when a mild traumatic brain injury has resolved is a subjective assessment that the injured person’s cognitive functioning has returned to baseline.
And as noted above, those who are most eager to return to the activity that caused the mild traumatic brain injury are often the most susceptible to suffering another head injury. If they return before they are fully healed from the first injury, the second injury could have devastating effects. This further exemplifies why it is so critical to develop a reliable and rapid objective test to assess the presence of mild traumatic brain injury. As an added bonus, a reliable and rapid objective test would have the felicitous effect of being able to catch those trying to use a mild traumatic brain injury to stay out of work or to collect a financial windfall in a personal injury action.
Sometimes the old adage rings true and you do get what you pay for. Other times, it does not. According to the American College of Physicians, the adage does not ring true for prescription medications. Medical News Today reports on a recent meta-analysis from the American College of Physicians Clinical Guidelines Committee which concluded that “the majority of peer-reviewed studies found that generic equivalents to brand-name drugs produced similar clinical outcomes.” In addition, the report’s authors found that patients adhered to their prescriptions better when receiving generics because of their lower costs, noting that “prescriptions for branded medications are almost twice as likely to go uncollected after being filled than generic medications.” Further, the cost of choosing branded medications over generics is significant. Substituting generic prescription drugs for brand name ones “combined with therapeutic interchange” would save $1.4 billion just among Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes.
Health insurers and employers bear a huge amount of the unnecessary direct costs of prescribing brand name drugs instead of generic equivalents. They also bear many of the indirect costs when an insured/employee doesn’t fill a brand name prescription due to lost time and increased medical intervention costs when the condition for with the brand name prescription was written is not controlled. Thus, health insurers and employers should staunchly advocate that physicians receiving reimbursement from group health or worker’s compensation plans prescribe the lowest cost drug or therapeutic equivalence rather than a brand name drug that adds no therapeutic value. They should also aggressively educate employees so they understand that with many prescription drugs you do not, in fact, get what you pay for.
Researchers have developed a blood test that holds promise to detect traumatic brain injury with greater sensitivity than even CT scans, according to this report from Medical News Today. Equally significant, the blood test appears also to be able to measure the severity of the traumatic brain injury accurately. The test measures glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), which is released when the brain suffers an injury. Although the test was performed on children, researchers note that it is likely to be equally valid for adults.
A blood test with sensitivity on par or better than a CT scan would be an improvement in diagnosis for at least a couple reasons. First, CT scans use x-ray radiation, and any ability to reduce the amount of radiation to which we are exposed is a good thing, especially in children. Second, portable detection devices similar to blood sugar monitors persons with diabetes use could be developed for the brain injury-measuring blood test. A portable detection device would be a boon to monitoring traumatic brain injury in sports like football or hockey. It would also be enormously useful to measure brain injury in the workplace. Third, a blood test would provide an objective means to diagnose traumatic brain injury with considerably greater sensitivity and ease than current concussion/traumatic brain injury protocols which rely chiefly on subjective interpretation of spoken or computer-based cognitive tests.
We recently wrote about how stunningly ineffective opioid pain medications are at treating chronic pain in women. A new study provides a perfect example of why prescribing opioids to treat chronic pain in women is a bad idea. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada found that 52% of women treated at a methadone maintenance clinic for opioid dependency developed their addiction while taking prescription painkillers, according to a report from Medical News Today. The study’s authors concluded that women are more susceptible to become addicted when prescribed opioid pain medication, but they are not sure why. Regardless of the reason, women’s apparent increased susceptibility should further caution prescription opioid use to manage long-term or chronic pain in women.
Arthritis is the bane of many lives and many claims. How many claims hinge on whether symptomatic arthritis is wholly preexisting or was aggravated by a work injury or a non-work-related accident? But what if there was a way to combat arthritis from developing in the first place? Perhaps there is. As Medical News Today reports, a team of engineers from the University of Delaware recently presented research suggesting that staying physically active appears to prevent arthritis from developing. Specifically, researchers found that hydrodynamic pressurization caused by normal joint movement causes synovial fluid back into cartilage.
To understand why this is significant, it helps to understand how joints are made and how arthritis develops. Synovial fluid is the viscous substance that lubricates the hyaline cartilage lining the surface of most joints. This enables the joint to move smoothly and without pain. Synovial fluid also constitutes 80% of hyaline cartilage. Arthritis develops when the hyaline cartilage deflates. The cartilage deflates when it loses synovial fluid. This is a normal process because hyaline cartilage is porous, which allows synovial fluid to leak into the joint space. Unfortunately, the cartilage does not reabsorb as much synovial fluid as it leaks out. Hence, the cartilage thins and eventually wears out, causing the pain that occurs in arthritis when exposed bone rubs against the opposite surface of the joint. As lead presenter David Burris stated,
We observed a dynamic competition between input and output [of synovial fluid]. We know that cartilage thickness is maintained over decades in the joint, and this is the first direct insight into why. It is activity itself that combats the natural deflation process associated with interstitial lubrication. (emphasis added)
The bottom line is that joint activity, i.e. moving, keeps the cartilage thicker longer, forestalling or preventing the onset of arthritis.
This is good news for employee wellness programs, especially those that help employees achieve an active lifestyle. The potential reduction in the occurrence of arthritis from such programs could benefit employers in many ways. First, arthritis saps productivity because it is painful, reduces mobility, and can cause absences. Second, arthritis will increase employers’ group health-related costs. Put another way, every joint replacement that can be avoided will have a positive impact on health insurance premiums. Third, arthritis is often alleged to be work-related, increasing worker’s compensation costs. Helping employees stay or become active makes sense for myriad reasons. Reducing employees’ arthritis is a powerful one both for employees’ well-being and employers’ bottom line.
At Medical Systems, we don’t often see separated shoulder cases, known to medical professionals as acromioclavicular (“AC”) joint dislocations, because the injuries are acute and painful. Hence, there usually isn’t much dispute about whether the injuries are work/accident-related or not. Still, these injuries happen at workplaces and in personal injury accidents. They are painful and, if severe, usually treated surgically (read, “expensively”).
New research suggests that this is probably the wrong approach. A recent study in the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma found that surgical repair of moderate and severe AC joint dislocations did not result in improved outcomes versus non-surgical repair, bucking what has been considered common knowledge among doctors. Not only did surgery not improve patient outcomes, but patients that did not have surgery actually recovered faster. In fact, 75% of the non-surgical patients returned to work within 3 months of the injury while only 43% of the surgical patients did. According to the study’s author, "For severe AC joint dislocations, surgery is the common practice but there's not much evidence to suggest this is actually the best treatment." An additional benefit is that those treated non-surgically (use of a sling and rehabilitation) suffered much lower rates of complication. The only noticeable benefit to surgery was that the AC joint appeared more normal after surgery.
One hopes that the medical community will pay attention to the findings and stop recommending surgery for every moderate to severe AC joint dislocation. It would seem that this would be the best result for both claimants with AC joint dislocations and claims professionals managing their claims.
We have all seen the statistics on the explosion of nonmedical opioid use, abuse, and overdose that occurred with the proliferation of opioid use to treat chronic pain conditions. A new study further calls into question the wisdom of using opioids to treat chronic pain in women. According to research published in the Journal of Women’s Health, only 20% of women using opioids over the long term to treat chronic pain reported low levels of pain and high levels of function. In other words, using opioids over the long term to treat chronic pain is ineffective for 8 out of every ten women using them for that purpose. With the risk of opioid addiction, misuse, and overdose as high as it is, it is frankly mind-boggling that they continue to be prescribed to treat chronic pain in a population for whom the drugs are overwhelmingly ineffective. One hopes that continued research such as Journal of Women’s Health study and growing awareness of the ineffectiveness of long-term opioid use to treat chronic pain will eventually lead to more sensible prescription guidelines and more judicious behavior among prescribing physicians.
Ankle fractures are not the most common injury in worker’s compensation or personal injury claims, but they do happen. The standard protocol for uncomplicated ankle fractures is immobilization (casting) followed by a supervised exercise program (physical therapy). Results from a recent JAMA study question whether supervised exercise improves outcomes for patients with uncomplicated ankle fractures. In the study, the control followed the standard protocol (supervised exercise after cast removal) while the experimental group received instructions on home exercises but did not participate in a supervised exercise program. The results demonstrated that the control group had no better outcomes in terms of activity limitations or quality of life. The authors conclude that “findings do not support the routine use of supervised exercise programs after removal of immobilization for patients with isolated and uncomplicated ankle fracture.”
Eliminating unnecessary physical therapy from uncomplicated ankle fracture claims presents a good opportunity to reduce claim costs. If treating physicians are unwilling to follow the recommendations of the JAMA study’s authors, setting up an IME or a record review could be a smart move, especially if it can be done before the cast comes off.
Everyone seeks the talisman that will mysteriously cause every claim to be resolved favorably. Sometimes we want the IME report to be that talisman. Unfortunately, IME reports do not possess supernatural influence over the outcome of claims; however, well-written reports are key elements to successfully administering claims. And fortunately, claim administrators can take steps to help ensure they receive well-written IME reports. Most importantly, claim administers should take care in drafting IME cover letters because well-written cover letters lead to well-written IME reports.
The goal in obtaining an IME report is to have the expert clearly and persuasively resolve specific issues or questions about the claim. It follows from this that communicating the issues or questions to be answered in a clear and coherent manner to the expert is necessary for the expert to understand the claim and the specific matters that need to be addressed. Claim administrators communicate this information to the expert via the cover letter. Hence, the cover letter must be well-written to achieve the goals of clearly communicating the specific matters to be addressed to the expert.
But what does it mean for a cover letter to be well-written? First, a well-written cover letter must be consistent. For example, a cover letter should not ask about the possibility of an occupational injury or disease if the only claim being alleged is a specific, traumatic, acute injury. If the cover letter is inconsistent, it can create ambiguity or vagueness that may confuse the expert as to the precise issues that need to be addressed. In the occupational injury or disease example, the expert may conclude that the alleged acute injury did not cause the condition complained of, but that the job activities generally caused the condition. Hence, the claim administrator will buy a claim that would otherwise have remained dormant. The cover letter should be both internally consistent and consistent with the actual claim being made. Otherwise, the expert may very well issue a confusing opinion or, worse yet, find an injury compensable that the claimant didn’t even raise.
Second, cover letters should be organized in a standard format. Using a standard form for cover letters benefits both the writer and the expert. The writer benefits because the standard form acts as an implicit checklist of the information that needs to be communicated to the expert. This reduces the likelihood that necessary information will be left out. Using a standard form also increases the writer’s efficiency because the writer does not have waste mental energy thinking about how he is going to format or structure every letter he writes. Finally, the expert benefits because she will know where to look to find information on what the case is about, the noteworthy medical records, and the specific questions to be answered. Thus, if the expert has a question about the date of injury, she will know precisely where to look in the cover letter to find it. Likewise, the standard form will minimize the likelihood that the expert will leave questions unanswered because she will know exactly where to look to the questions being asked.
Third, cover letter writers should use clear, direct, and simple language whenever possible. You may need to know what a ‘calumny’ is if you are taking the SAT, but you are probably better off describing the claimant’s version of events as ‘difficult to believe’ in an IME letter. The goal of the cover letter is to communicate to the expert exactly what she needs to know and what questions she needs to answer. The goal is most effectively accomplished with simple and direct language.
This was driven home for me recently in an IME that arose out of a claim with multiple respondents. The cover letter writer explained to the expert that they were ‘impleaded’ into the case by one of the insurance companies. The expert was confused and had to ask us what the cover letter writer meant by ‘impleaded.’ The client was fortunate that the expert was not afraid to ask the question and that we knew the answer. The problem is the cover letter writer used legal jargon that is commonly understood among attorneys and claims administrators, but is not a concept that a medical expert would have any reason to know. A more simple and direct way to explain the case to the doctor would have been to state:
We represent XYZ. The employee claims she hurt her right shoulder while working for ABC; however, ABC got an IME report from Dr. Doe who concluded that the employee injured her shoulder while working for our client XYZ. As a result of Dr. Doe’s opinion, ABC claims that XYZ is responsible for the employee’s right shoulder condition and brought us into the case.
If the cover letter writer used simple and direct language, the expert would have understood exactly what the claim was about and why he was being asked for his opinion. Failing to use straightforward language greatly increases the risk that the expert will be confused and issue a confusing report.
Fourth, good writing is good editing. Time is always at a premium for claims professionals and attorneys, but every IME cover letter writer should take the time to reread and edit the letter before sending it to the expert. Editing the cover letter is the only way to ensure that the cover letter is clear and coherent. When we are busy, we may be tempted to release IME cover letters without editing them, but the cost of doing so far exceeds the benefit of the time saved. For example, it is easy to misstate the side of the body to which an injury occurred when hurrying to get out a cover letter. While experts will often correct the mistake when they review the records, sometimes the impression from the cover letter sticks in the expert’s mind and she perpetuates the mistake in the IME report. An IME report that misstates the side of the body actually injured loses credibility, even if it appears that the mistake was one of nomenclature rather than intent.
As noted above, there are no talismans in claims administration. Nevertheless, claims administrators can take steps to improve the likelihood that they will be able to resolve claims favorably. Crafting a well-written cover letter is one such step. A well-written cover letter will insure that the expert will understand the case, know what issues need to be addressed, and will be aware of the writer’s role in the case. As a result, the expert will be able to address all the relevant issues from a position of knowledge and understanding. And when good questions are answered by knowledgeable experts, good IME reports result.
Few things are as frustrating as preparing an IME cover letter and getting a report back that doesn’t answer all of the questions. Most people drafting IME cover letters use a standard form letter that starts by explaining the case then summarizes the relevant records and finishes with a section setting out the specific questions the expert is to answer. The purpose of using standardized form letters is to communicate as effectively as possible. Form letters have a number of qualities that make them effective. Chief among these qualities are form letters’ consistency and predictability. In the case of an IME cover letter, the expert knows where to look to find the case summary, a recitation of relevant records, and the specific questions the writer wants answered. The letter is drafted in this predictable and stylized way so the expert doesn’t have to waste any time figuring out what is going on and what they are being asked to do about it.
Problems ensue when cover letter writers depart from the standard form because the expert cannot rely on finding the relevant information where she expects to find it. This is especially problematic when writers intersperse questions for the expert throughout the cover letter rather than placing all of the questions in the specific questions section. The main problem in placing questions outside the specific question section is that experts often overlook or forget to answer questions buried in the body of cover letters.
It can be frustrating when a question in the IME cover letter goes unanswered, but the process of how most experts prepare IME reports explains how and why this happens. Most experts receive a cover letter with the relevant records attached to it. Usually the expert will read the cover letter to learn about the case and why they are being retained. Some experts will go through and dictate the record review portion of the report when they receive the records, especially if the records are voluminous. At a later date, the expert will meet with and examine the subject. Only after the expert examines the subject will she dictate the history, examination, impressions, and specific interrogatives portion of the report. When the expert gets to the specific interrogatives, she will typically review the specific questions section of the cover letter to determine what questions the client wants answered. Ordinarily the expert will not reread the entire cover letter before answering the specific questions asked. Finally, the expert will dictate her answer to the specific questions and with that the report is completed.
Experts tend to miss questions posed in the body of cover letters because they follow a specific method of preparing reports that relies on the assumption that cover letters, as standardized form letters, will stay true to the form. In particular, experts assume that if a cover letter has a section in which specific questions are asked, all the specific questions they are expected to answer will appear there (a reasonable assumption given the fact that a separate section is being devoted specifically to the questions the writer wants answered). The very purpose of the form is to make clear to the expert what the case is about and what questions need to be answered. Departures from the form defeat its purpose.
To minimize the likelihood that a question will go unanswered, the cover letter writer should include all questions in the specific questions section of the letter. For example, if the writer summarizes an MRI scan report that demonstrates no evidence of an acute injury process despite the scan being taken within 48 hours of the alleged injury, the writer may point to this and ask the expert about the significance of the MRI findings. However, to limit the possibility that the question will go unanswered, the writer should repeat the question in the specific questions section. Doing so may seem like overkill, but repeating the question in the specific questions section of the cover letter will practically guaranty that the expert will answer the question. The standardized form of cover letters puts all the questions in a specific questions section in large part so that the expert neither has to guess at what opinions the client wants nor reread the cover letter numerous times to be sure she has answered all the questions the client wants answered.
Cover letters are effective when they are consistent and predictable. Asking every question the writer wants answered in the section devoted to the specific questions hews to this consistency and predictability. Interspersing questions throughout cover letters makes them inconsistent and unpredictable, which creates a significant risk that some of the questions will go unanswered. Avoid the risk. Put the questions where the expert expects to find them.