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9/25/2015 in Blog Categories, News

Last week we reported on research finding that taking short breaks to move during the day have beneficial effects on blood pressure.  Even more encouraging is research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine finding that simply fidgeting during the day has similar and beneficial health effects.  While this may be bad news to our least favorite elementary school teachers who seemingly equated intelligence with the ability to sit still, it is good news for all of us who find ourselves working in sedentary jobs.  And there are a lot of us working sedentary jobs.  The American Heart Association estimates that less than 20% of U.S. jobs can be characterized as “physically active.”  According to the study’s authors, “there was no increased mortality risk from longer sitting time” among study participants who reported fidgeting a moderate or high amount during the day.  So don’t sit still!  It appears that all movement is good for us, even such trivial types as fidgeting.  While everyone can benefit from regular exercise, don’t count out the little things we can do during the day to counteract the negative effects of being sedentary.  They might be just as important as the big things.

Hearing that exercise is good for us is worse than a broken record.  Sometimes it actually feels painful to read it, as if the purveyors of this information are on some sort of sadistic quest to make their readers feel bad.  Fortunately, this post will actually tell you that less is more and that you don’t have to kill yourself to not kill yourself.  The New York Times wellness blog has a short piece worth reading on just what kind of exercise helps reduce blood pressure.  This is important information because high blood pressure is a precursor to a vast array of conditions and diseases that shorten lifespans and reduce quality of life.  What is also significant about the information is that it should actually make exercise easier.  First and foremost, the article points to research finding that “’exercise intensity does not appear to play any significant role’ in helping people control blood pressure.”  This is good news for anyone who blanches at the notion that exercise has to be strenuous to be beneficial.  According to the article, “movement is what matters” and improvements in blood pressure readings were seen in persons who engaged in such simple activities as taking standing breaks or walking 1 mph for 10 minutes an hour at desk treadmills.  In addition, the article pointed to research demonstrating that small movement breaks during sedentary periods are more beneficial than extended periods of exercise.  This should be encouraging for all of us who have demands on our time that make scheduling an extended period of time for daily exercise difficult.  At a minimum, most of us can manage to find 10 minutes here and there where we can simply stand while we work.  And the good news is that even this modest intervention has been proven to substantially improve blood pressure readings.  And employers should take note because this simple strategy could have significant effects on the health of employees, which is good for just about everything, including the bottom line.

I do beguile the thing I am by seeming otherwise.

-Iago in Othello, II.2.122-3.

Shakespeare’s Othello, while ostensibly about the titular character and his wife, Desdemona, centers on English literature’s most notorious and effective liar, Iago, a character so perplexingly foul as to cause Samuel Taylor Coleridge to describe him as “motiveless malignity,” evil for only evil’s sake.  Since most of us have long since forgotten our high school and college lit classes, a brief recap:  Othello saves Venice from a Genoan invasion and is elevated to general.  He also wins the heart of the Doge’s daughter, Desdemona, and marries her.  Iago ostensibly hates Othello because he passed him over for a promotion to lieutenant.  He hatches a plan to convince Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, which he successfully executes through a series of lies and half-truths, manipulating the other characters like a puppeteer.  Iago ultimately convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, whereupon he kills her and commits suicide (the play being, after all, a tragedy).

To Coleridge, the greatest imaginable horror is not the overtly hostile brute, but rather the deceiver.  The reason is that the challenge of the hostile brute, while perhaps significant, is open and obvious.  We know what to expect and can prepare to deal with it.  The deceptive person is exponentially worse because we often have no idea that we are being deceived or that the person is deceptive.  We have no chance to prepare because we have no expectation of malfeasance or misbehavior.  Hence, in the play Othello unwittingly considers Iago to be his truest friend while Iago leads him to his demise. 

Human biology suggests Coleridge was right to fear liars.  We became spectacularly successful because of our ability to cooperate and trust one another.  It is how we went from hunter-gatherers to denizens of today’s massive and massively complex technological society.  Deceit directly assaults our social nature and causes us to question the motives of everyone with whom we interact.  This is particularly harmful for social beings whose existential success depends on cooperation.  As a result, our inherently social nature makes us particularly poor at detecting deception.

Despite the fact that we are not very good lie detectors, we often think that we are. While liars are popularly depicted as either furtive bundles of nerves and sweat or overconfident and suave psychopaths, in truth all persons lie to varying degrees and there is no one personality type that is particularly adept at being deceitful.  Studies generally find that we are poor lie detectors.  We often think that traits like Machiavellianism, psychopathy, or narcissism make a person a more effective liar; however, research finds that persons having these personality traits are neither particularly effective liars nor particularly effective lie detectors.  About the only things we know for sure about lying are that, “the ability to lie well correlates with an ability to better detect deception in others; and the control of response latency difference when lying may be the key to producing successful lies and detecting those lies in others.”  Contrary to media portrayals, liars cannot be stereotyped.  Also, the popular belief that persons lying give off telltale signs of deception is simply untrue.  If a person wants to lie, chances are no one will notice. 

The problem of deceit in traumatic brain injury is particularly vexing since there are limited objective measures available to differentiate between legitimate claims and malingering or symptom magnification.  To give an idea of the scope of the problem, research has demonstrated symptom magnification or malingering likely occurs in about 40% of mild head injury claims.  This presents difficulties for both insurers and legitimately injured claimants.  Insurers are understandably wary of paying claims for which little or no objective evidence exists and high rates of symptom magnification and malingering exist.  Claimants get frustrated when insurers question their claims because they suffered an injury for which limited diagnostic tests are available.  Both insurers and claimants would be served best if there was a reliable way to differentiate legitimate traumatic brain injury from malingering or symptom magnification.  The question is whether there is such a reliable way to do so.

The good news is that advances in neuroimaging are beginning to differentiate how physically injured brains function versus uninjured brains and brains of persons with psychological conditions.  For example, a July 2015 study published at PLoS ONE described differences in single photon emission computed tomography (“SPECT”) scans between persons suffering from traumatic brain injury versus posttraumatic stress disorder.  The study specifically concluded that “hypoperfusion in the orbitofrontal cortex, temporal poles, and anterior cingulum are consistent with the most frequent findings in the TBI literature” while “increases in the limbic structures, cingulum, basal ganglia, insula, thalamus, prefrontal cortex, and temporal lobes” were noted in subjects with PTSD.  The authors report that SPECT scans may be able “to differentiate TBI from PTSD with sufficient sensitivity, specificity and accuracy to incrementally enhance clinical decision-making.” 

The bad news is that we are just at the cusp of the neuroimaging revolution.  This means doctors cannot simply order a SPECT scan (or any other imaging study) and state to a reasonable degree of medical certainty whether a particular patient is suffering from a particular condition based on the results of the scan.  More research will be needed before imaging studies can be relied on to differentiate between the fact of injury and the type of injury being claimed.  Though the news on the neuroimaging front is encouraging, until it becomes medically accepted as a diagnostic tool we will have to rely on clinical examination and testing to assess whether a particular patient is suffering from a TBI, a psychological injury, or is attempting to deceive us.

So can we determine if a claimant is trying to deceive us with clinical examination and testing?  First, it is useful to define exactly what malingering is.  According to the American Psychiatric Association, malingering is “the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms motivated by external incentives…”  In the case of malingering in a personal injury claim, the external incentive is to obtain compensation from the tort system.  It is also useful to know that the vast majority of mild traumatic brain injury resolves within 6 months.  Most mild traumatic brain injuries are unremarkable events that are self-limiting and require little active care.  In most cases, a person suffering a mild traumatic brain injury will get better no matter what they do and whether they seek treatment or not.

The symptoms of traumatic brain injury are nonspecific and include memory loss, attention deficits, mood changes, anxiety, and headache.  These symptoms are also present in psychological conditions such as depression and PTSD and are so nonspecific as to be easily feigned.  Fortunately, neuropsychological testing “can identify those who exaggerate or fake with moderately high levels of sensitivity and specificity.”  One of the chief ways of detecting feigners is through the use of tests or indices that measure effort or intentional failure.  These include the Test of Memory Malingering (“TOMM”), the Word Memory Test, the Computerized Assessment of Response Bias, the Portland Digit Recognition Test, and the Victoria Symptom Validity Test.  For example, the TOMM has been found to have a 100% positive predictive power (the likelihood that a person has the condition when a test detects the condition) and a 90% negative predictive power (probability that a person does not have the condition when a test does not detect the condition).  Researchers noted that “these statistics indicate that we can be 90% confident that a person gave good effort when he or she scored above the suggested cutoff value (for suboptimal performance).  On the other hand, when a participant scored below the cutoff, we can have 100% confidence that he or she performed suboptimally.” 

Interested in learning more about traumatic brain injuries and how to tell legitimate claims from illegitimate ones?  Attend Medical Systems’ Advanced Medical Topics in Civil Litigation Symposium where Dr. Marc Novom and Dr. Brad Grunert will tackle traumatic brain injury from medical and psychological perspectives to give you their insights on how they analyze these claims and what you can do to manage them more effectively.

We have written many times about the pitfalls of conventional, linear thinking.  Another development in the world of biomedical science confirms the peril of this type of thinking.  In this case Ruth Massey, a biologist and biochemist at the University of Bath, describes research she performed with colleagues on staphylococcus aureus bacteria (the SA in MRSA), the found, contrary to conventional wisdom, that staph infections causing bacteremia in humans, the worst and most deadly staph infection (up to a 40% mortality rate), produce relatively few toxins.  For decades, scientists thought “the more toxins a bacteria produces, the worse infection it causes.”  Massey’s research demonstrates that the exact opposite is true:  the worst infections in humans are caused by bacteria that produce less toxins.

How Massey and her colleagues discovered this information is a good example of why it is perilous to apply assumptions across categories without testing them.  In this case, the problem had to do with how bacteremia research was conducted.  Generally, bacteremia experiments are conducted on rodents.  Massey et al. discovered that this is problematic because staph bacteria have much more difficulty establishing infection in rodent blood than in human blood.  As Massey notes, as few as 100 staph bacteria can cause bacteremia in humans while 10-100 million staph bacteria must be injected into the rodent blood stream to establish infection.  It turns out that this difference is crucial to how infections develop humans versus rodents.  In humans, the way staph causes bacteria is by overwhelming the body’s defenses numerically.  In order to do this, the bacteria need to be most efficient at reproducing.  Having fewer toxins allows the bacteria to reproduce more efficiently than if the bacteria had many toxins, which requires energy be siphoned away from reproduction.  In rodents this is less of an issue because bacterial loads large enough to overwhelm the rodent immune system are being injected into the blood stream.  Human staph infections follow a typical organic course that starts with seeding by significantly fewer bacteria cells.

What is most significant is that untested assumptions often have real deleterious consequences.  In the case of the bacteria staphylococcus aureus, research directed at treating and preventing staph infections, especially antibiotic resistant MRSA infections, has focused on staph bacteria that produce high levels of toxins.  And this research was conducted because scientists assumed staph that secreted higher levels of toxins caused the worst infections.  The problem is that Massey and colleagues have found that these strains of staph are not the ones that cause severe and deadly infections.  The assumption was perilously wrong.  As Massey writes, “identifying the limitations to our knowledge, rather than blindly pursuing hypothesis based on misleading animal experiments has got to be a better starting point for the future of infectious disease research.”

The same can be said of medico-legal claims:  blindly pursuing claims strategies based on conventional wisdom can lead to bad results.   Identify what you know and what you need to know.  Gather the evidence.  Ask what conclusions can be drawn from the facts?  Form a claims strategy from the conclusions drawn from the facts, even if the strategy runs afoul of conventional wisdom.  And if you find ignoring conventional wisdom uncomfortable (even when the facts of the claim are telling you to do so), ask yourself:  Would I rather be comfortable or right?

We have written about the beneficial effects of getting enough sleep in this blog before.  Yet again, researchers demonstrate that sleep is a vital component of health (and productivity).  Science reports that a recent study published in the journal SLEEP confirming that people who don’t get enough sleep are more susceptible to the common cold.  Scientists conducting the study inoculated healthy volunteers with rhinovirus, the most commonly implicated virus in causing colds, then quarantined the participants on a segregated hotel floor for 5 days after inoculation to limit the possibility of picking up rhinovirus from the environment.  The study’s authors found that participants who slept less than 5 hours per night were 4.5 times more likely to get sick than participants who slept seven hours or more per night, proving once more that getting adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining health.  And as any employer during cold and flu season can attest, maintaining health is crucial for productivity (and attendance).  

Decorated New York Times Science reporter Gina Kolata recently reported on a  large (100,000 women over 20 years) study published in JAMA Oncology on ductal carcinoma in situ (“DCIS”), a form of abnormal cells found in the milk ducts of breast tissue.  Some medical experts call DCIS stage 0 breast cancer.  Other medical experts do not even consider DCIS to be cancer.  Kolata’s article and the study on which it reports illustrates a problem with viewing medicine as a static field to which fixed assumptions apply:  the human body is a dynamical system that is unpredictable and confounds assumptions.    

Cancer is a particularly good example of the problems with making fixed assumptions about disease.  As Kolata notes:

Over the years, investigators have come to conclude that the old model of cancer – that a few aberrant cells will grow, spread and inevitably become a deadly cancer if not destroyed – is wrong.  Small clumps of abnormal cells may just stop growing, scientists now know.  Even invasive cancers do not always grow.  Some regress or disappear.  That is especially true in prostate cancer, where as many as half of all cancers found with screening will not progress is they are simply left alone.  But it also seems true in breast cancer, researchers say.

Doctors used to assume that DCIS was an incipient form of cancer that, if not treated, would grow into a tumor and eventually metastasize.  The use of mammograms greatly increased the diagnosis of DCIS, which led to greatly increased treatment of it.  Early on, mastectomy was the preferred method of treatment.  The reason was based on applying the rules of a different cancer to DCIS.  Studies had demonstrated that excising early neoplastic lesions on the cervix that were discovered in Pap tests prevented deaths from cervical cancer; hence, doctors reasoned that cutting out DCIS lesions would prevent deaths from breast cancer.  As lumpectomy became an accepted alternate treatment to mastectomy in breast cancer, doctors began treating DCIS with lumpectomy also.  The problem is that the JAMA study found there was no difference in the death rate from breast cancer of women diagnosed with DCIS (regardless of the form of treatment they received or whether they received no treatment) and the death rate from breast cancer in the general population of women.  The study also found that despite aggressively treating DCIS, there was no impact on the incidence of invasive breast cancer in the general population.  This would not be expected:  “if treating DCIS was supposed to fend off invasive breast cancer, the incidence of invasive breast cancer should have plummeted once DCIS was being found and treated.”

The JAMA Oncology study can teach those of us in the medico-legal world a valuable lesson about the perils of making assumptions without testing them.  In the medico-legal world, we need to pay attention to the evidence around us and to the impact the evidence has on the claim, especially impacts that are unexpected or run counter to our assumptions about the claim.  Failure to do so will inevitably result in error. 

The DCIS case is instructive.  Surgeons began performing mastectomies and later lumpectomies to treat DCIS with the rise of mammogram screening.  They did so on the advice of oncologists and gynecologists who assumed that the abnormal cells of DCIS were like the abnormal cervix cells found on Pap tests. Despite growing evidence that certain neoplasms do not metastasize and that different cancers behave and respond to treatment differently, oncologists and gynecologists kept recommending that DCIS be excised (and general surgeons dutifully performed the excisions).  And even after years of excision being standard treatment for DCIS, no one bothered to gauge whether the treatment in fact lowered death rates from breast cancer because the medical community did not question the assumption that DCIS would lead to breast cancer if not excised.  The assumption, based on an analogy instead of medical evidence, was so deeply embedded in the medical profession that few practitioners thought to question it.  As a result, thousands and thousands of unnecessary mastectomies and lumpectomies were performed over the last three decades which caused physical injury, physical pain, psychological distress (not to mention massive medical costs), and did not prevent breast cancer.  And all of this was caused by a failure to pay attention to the actual evidence accruing and instead relying on an untested assumption.

DCIS offers a sobering example of why we cannot rest our claims analyses on untested assumptions.  Instead, we must constantly test our assumptions against the available evidence to determine whether the inferences drawn therefrom support the assumptions.  While the assumptions made in individual claims are not likely to have as deleterious consequences as the assumptions the medical community made about DCIS, they can have a negative impact on our ability to resolve claims efficiently and effectively.  And if the assumptions are repeated over time, the skewed results we achieve in resolving claims could have a significant negative monetary impact in the aggregate.  Instead, we should constantly be testing our assumptions against the actual evidence; further, we should be prepared to abandon our assumptions if the available evidence does not support them.  Claims are not static but rather change over time as they are developed and new evidence is obtained.  To manage claims effectively, we must adapt to those changes and develop a strategy that is responsive to them.  If we do so we will not be surprised when the unexpected arises and we will respond to it nimbly.  We will also avoid the pitfall of untested assumptions that, like was the case with DCIS, can cause us to pursue strategies that may not only be ineffective but also harmful.  

Pulmonary claims in worker’s compensation can be difficult if there is not a discrete release of harmful airborne particulate matter or chemicals that is well-documented.  In cases with longer exposure time or with exposure to common particulate matter such as ‘dust’ or other materials that may cause pulmonary irritation, finding a plausible non-industrial cause for the pulmonary injury or condition can be both challenging and vital to the claim’s defense.  However, a UK study reveals a potential source for non-industrial exposure to harmful particulate matter and vapors:  home improvement projects.  According to Medical News Today, the study found that “peak concentrations of potentially harmful ultrafine particles reach up to 4,000 times local background levels when undertaking building activities such as drilling.”  The authors note that do-it-yourself (“DIY”) home improvement has increased in recent years and continues to grow in the United Kingdom, a trend also common to the United States. 

In the United States, OSHA mandates worker’s on construction sites be provided with personal protective equipment such as respirator masks when necessary to protect employees from harmful particulate matter and vapors.  OSHA also requires that employers use effective engineering controls such as confinement and ventilation to limit workers’ exposure to harmful particulate matter.  Unfortunately, individuals who engage in home improvement projects are not required to use personal protective equipment or engineering controls to protect themselves.  Thus, home improvement projects, especially those involving drilling, cutting, sanding, or solvent use can be a significant source of pulmonary exposure to harmful airborne particulate matter or vapors.

In the worker’s compensation context, the rise in DIY home improvement is a potential non-industrial cause of pulmonary injuries and conditions.  Claim handlers in pulmonary claims should ask claimants about DIY home improvement project history to see if there is a potential exposure source outside the workplace for their problems.  Also, claim handlers may wish to consider interviewing co-workers since many people who engage in DIY home improvement projects like to talk about them.  Prompt surveillance could also be useful because larger scale DIY projects often generate construction waste that is at least temporarily stored at the home and is often visible from the street.  Finally, independent pulmonary experts should be instructed to ask claimants about their DIY home improvement project history if they are not already doing so.  Dry-walling a bedroom surely would be more likely to cause pulmonary problems than exposure to the everyday amount of dust present on a loading dock in a warehouse (or wherever the exposure is alleged to have occurred).

Spinal cord injuries are devastating.  The U.S. experiences approximately 12,000 spinal cord injuries per year in which the injured person survives the initial accident.  For those who survive the initial accident, the road forward is physically arduous, psychologically taxing, and financially burdensome.  A spinal cord injury patient can expect to spend well over a month in hospitals and in-patient rehabilitation (and sometimes considerably longer dependent on the severity of the injury and whether there are concomitant cognitive impairments or other comorbidities).  In addition, the lifetime costs of spinal cord injuries are extensive, having a present day value ranging from $4,540,000 for a 20-year-old patient with high tetraplegia (spinal cord injury at C1-C4) to $1,460,000 for a 60-year-old patient with paraplegia.  The occupational effects are profound, with only 35% of spinal cord injury patients able to achieve a similar pre-injury level of employment 20 years post-injury.  Obviously, the costs to employers and worker’s compensation carriers in work-related spinal cord injury claims are enormous and usually lifelong.  The costs of spinal cord injuries are massive in the liability context as well.  Since the two most common causes of spinal cord injuries are motor vehicle crashes and falls, liability and worker’s compensation claims are relatively common when spinal cord injuries occur. 

Certainly no one did more to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries than Christopher Reeve, who suffered a spinal cord injury causing high tetraplegia (C1-C2) after falling from a horse in 1995.  Periodically high profile athlete suffer spinal cord injuries that thrust the issue back into the national spotlight.   In 2010, Rutgers football player Eric LeGrande sustained a spinal cord injury during a game against army that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down.  In October 1995, Travis Roy was just 11 seconds into his first shift in his first game as a hockey player for Boston University when he crashed head-first into the boards and suffered a spinal cord injury that also paralyzed him from the neck down.  More recently, Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medal-winning swimmer Amy Van Dyken suffered a spinal cord injury away from athletics in June 2014 when she fell off the all-terrain vehicle she was driving and down a 5-7 foot embankment.  The accident injured her spinal cord at T11 and left her paralyzed from the waist down. 

These famous athletes and celebrities periodically remind us of both the risk and devastating consequences of spinal cord injury.  Fortunately, progress is being made in managing the post-injury effects of spinal cord injury.  The most frequently reported-on developments typically involve bionic exoskeletons that help the paralyzed person move their limbs.  However, recently medical researchers have been making strides in using electrical stimulation to allow the injured patient voluntarily move paralyzed limbs.  In recently reported research, external electrodes were placed over 5 patients’ spinal columns who have suffered from paraplegia for at least two years.  The electrodes in combination with the drug buspirone allowed the patients to move their limbs under stimulation, which was not unexpected.  What was remarkable is that the patients retained the ability to move their legs even without electrical stimulation after 4 weeks of treatment.  As lead researcher Prof. V. Reggie Edgerton noted, "The fact that they regained voluntary control so quickly must mean that they had neural connections that were dormant, which we reawakened."  The findings are considered remarkable because the medical and scientific community had accepted that persons with complete paralysis “no longer had any neural connections in the spinal area.;” suggesting that it may be possible to regain motor function without regenerating spinal neurons or using an exoskeleton system.

This research along with the mind-boggling progress that is being made with patient-controlled exoskeleton devices is changing the landscape for spinal cord injury patients.  These developments are welcome news for patients, their families, and society alike.  As noted above, the occupational and medical costs of spinal cord injuries are enormous.  Anything that can return function to patients has the potential to minimize the occupational impact and long-term medical expenses of spinal cord injuries, which is good news for the worker’s compensation and civil liability systems as well.  Spinal cord injuries are among the most costly injuries to everyone involved.  Improving outcomes in spinal cord injuries will benefit an extraordinary number of individual lives and also the institutions set up to absorb the costs.

7/10/2015 in Blog Categories, News

Some problems are bigger than others.  Consider the case of Archimedes and the water screw:  how do you get lots of water uphill when you live in the 3rd century BCE and don’t have a pump?  While the origin of Archimedes’ screw is subject to debate, the fact is that sometime between 700 BCE and 200 BCE the Assyrians or the Greeks figured out a way to move water uphill efficiently without having mechanical, machine powered pumps.  The solution was to enclose a double or triple helical surface, more commonly known as a screw, inside a pipe.  One end of the pipe is placed in water and as the screw shaft is turned, the bottom scoops up water, which slides up on the tube until it reaches the top and spills out.  The screw was used to move water to and from irrigation ditches and to drain water from low-lying areas or mines.  Part of the genius of the screw was that the seal between the screw edge and the pipe did not need to be watertight since it would work as long as the volume of water being scooped up was larger than the volume of water leaking down.  Regardless, Archimedes’ screw was able to move significantly more water uphill both faster and at lower energy costs than using buckets and pails.

Archimedes’ screw is remarkable when you think about it:  in a pre-industrial society without electric or other non-manual power sources, someone figured out a way to move water uphill with efficiency comparable to a mechanical pump using a screw.  Not exactly the method that would come to mind for most of us when thinking about how to move water uphill.  This sort of unconventional, out-of-the box thinking is an example of what business and cognitive science experts call “distant search”; which has been neatly defined as “problem solving outside the neighborhood of what is already known.”  Distant search contrasts with “local search,” which is the most common way we solve problems.  Local search is “problem solving that focuses only on the neighborhood of what is already known, drawing on the pre-existing knowledge base and on how the problem (or similar problems) had been solved in the past.” 

The fact that most problem solving is accomplished using local search is not surprising.  Most of us are familiar with the idea that specialization and expertise are important factors in achieving high levels of competence in most fields.  Most have probably heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that expertise arises after 10,000 hours of practice in any given field.  Some may also be familiar with research demonstrating that the single biggest factor predicting a surgeon’s success rate at a particular procedure is the frequency with which the surgeon performs the procedure.  All of this may leave us with the impression that the key factor to achieving success is practice, repetition, and familiarity.  The bottom line is that for most problems, expertise is useful because most problems arise out of and can be solved using “the neighborhood of what is already known.”

Undoubtedly practice, familiarity, and repetition help build the fund of knowledge available for local searches and are useful for solving most of the day-to-day problems we encounter; however, these factors are insufficient for solving the biggest and most difficult problems we encounter.  The reason is fairly simple:  local searches are cognitively rigid.  Unfortunately, cognitive rigidity acts as a bar to creative and unconventional thinking, which often makes the difference between whether a seemingly intractable problem gets solved or not.  For the most difficult problems, innovative and unexpected solutions are usually needed but local search is narrow, predictable, and based on existing knowledge of the status quo.  Local search is not particularly creative or innovative.  For more difficult problems, a different type of solution is needed and the solution is found through distant search.

In distant search, a solution is sought that is significantly different from what might be considered the intuitive or logical starting point.  The Archimedes screw is a classic historical example of distant search.   Others would include Copernicus, who did not continue the refinement of Ptolemaic solutions to the problems caused by the geocentric model (i.e. the need for epicycles) but instead proposed the wholly different and (it would turn out) correct solution of a heliocentric model.  Copernicus had, at some point, to abandon the idea of the geocentric model in order to conceive of a different solution to the problem.  This move away, this search for a solution different in quality and kind, is distant searching.  Einstein’s conception of relativity is a similar example of distant search:  a wholly novel solution to cosmological questions that differed in quality and kind from Newton’s solution.  Simply refining or correcting the flaws in Newton’s mechanics would not have led to a correct model, but would have only further refined an incorrect model.  The model would have still been incorrect.  The flaws would have remained. 

Contemporary examples of distant search include e-books and the iPhone.  Publishers’ use of CD-ROM in response to the digitization of information storage and transmission was the result of local search.  This is in contrast to Amazon’s distant search which resulted in the development and adoption of e-books.  The iPhone touchscreen is another great example of distant search.  Rather than putting a keyboard on a phone, a la Blackberry, Apple developed a more elegant and unexpected solution to the interface between user and PDA.  In the annals of history, we know who which innovations will be remembered and which will be forgotten.  It is often this way with distant search.  Distant search is the Eureka moment, the breakthrough that changes everything, the revolution that changes industries and societies.      

The problem most of us have with distant search is that it essentially requires us to stop thinking about the problem.  Usually this is a matter of happenstance.  We get so frustrated with a difficult problem that we simply walk away from it.  The solution then comes to us at an unexpected moment (if it comes to us at all).  Consider the case of a musician who can’t complete a partially formed melody.  Local search would involve playing the fragment over and over, maybe adding to it or varying it a bit. The problem is that the musician has reached what could be termed an arrest of thought (she’s stumped, in other words).  Continuing to repeat the fragment that led to the arrest of thought is only likely to deepen its hold on her brain and increase her frustration.  Eventually she will abandon the fragment and move on.  If she is to complete the melody, she will most likely find the solution when she is not thinking about the problem.  Perhaps the sound of subway doors closing triggers a connection previously unavailable to her and causes her to find a solution.  Or maybe the susurration of the wind shaking leaves triggers the connection that leads to the solution.  The point is that the musician is most likely to solve the problem with information “from outside the neighborhood of what is already known” about the problem and this information will only become available when she is not thinking about the problem.  

Unfortunately, happenstance is inefficient, unpredictable, and not always successful.  The process of happenstance is a distant search whereby the musician is confronted with something, however trivial or mundane, that causes her to think of the problem in a novel way which offers a hitherto inaccessible solution to the problem.  However, the connection or solution that presents itself is wholly dependent on the chance that something in the musician’s daily life will trigger the connection.  Perhaps she never rides the subway at the moment when her mind is clear and receptive.  Perhaps she needs to hear the sound of leaves rustling in the wind but never takes a walk in the woods.  Regardless, happenstance is a poor method to rely on for performing distant search.

Fortunately, we can train ourselves to use distant search more efficiently.  The key is to become self-aware of our thought process and how we are thinking about the problem.  The term that has sway in the cognitive sciences right now is mindful metacognition.  In layperson’s terms this simply means self-aware thinking about thinking.  Rather than dive into the problem, mindful metacognition would have us think about the problem, but then would have us abandon the thought rather than follow it.  Then we would allow other thoughts to form in the cognitive space vacated by our initial solution to the problem.  Mindful metacognition offers a more targeted method to achieve distance search.  The process allows the musician in our example to consciously shut off the ruminative stream of thought that has got her stuck and to open her field of consciousness to new thoughts in close enough proximity to the melody fragment problem that the new thoughts become available as possible solutions or modes of thought that can precipitate a solution to the melody fragment.  The likelihood of reaching a distant solution in a shorter time is thereby increased versus happenstance alone.

Hence, when a roadblock arises, try to use mindful metacognition to explore distant search solutions.  In a sense, using mindful metacognition to trigger distant search is like an internal email to colleagues or an online query:  rather than sending out a question to a few or many others, mindful metacognition essentially lets you float the question to your whole mind a memory store.  Thus, the free associations that you allow to form and retrieve thoughts and memories that increase the likelihood that somewhere in our amazing, complex, and data-filled brain a solution or way of seeing the problem that will lead to the solution already exists and just needs to be brought out for the connection to the problem to be established.  These thoughts and memories are like the vast array of potential individuals available to us when we crowdsource the solution to a problem.  Not every problem requires distant search, but when one arises it is certainly better to use a targeted method that offers a reasonable chance at a solution than to use local search and beat one’s head against the wall over and over or to rely on happenstance, which may never, in fact, happen.

The outcome of most claims, whether worker’s compensation or personal injury, often boils down to which side tells the most credible story.  And the story starts with the claimant and other eyewitness interviews.  How and when these interviews are conducted can have a significant impact on what story gets told and how believable that story is.  Fortunately, cognitive science has taught us a great deal about how memory works and what interview techniques are most likely to yield the most complete and accurate eyewitness accounts.

Before we get to the actual strategies for conducting better interviews, a brief primer on human memory formation and recall is in order.  Human memory is not, as many assume, like video footage that is stored and can be replayed at will.  Instead, memory formation and recall “is a constructive process influenced by knowledge, beliefs, expectations, and schemas.”  Many people also believe that we are like video cameras that encode everything that enters the visual field, regardless of where our attention was being directed.  This is simply not how memory works:  “Events can only be incorporated into explicit memory if they are noticed, and attention plays a central role in the encoding process.”  In addition, when people are asked to remember things from the same event on multiple occasions, they often remember different things because the different retrieval attempts “make different aspects of the memory accessible.”  Laypersons and legal professionals find this counterintuitive, but “repeated interviews can be a means to improve recall performance.”  (The recall of additional information about the same event at subsequent interviews is called reminiscence. )  Finally, most researchers agree that the most important way to avoid corrupting memory during an interview is to ask open-ended questions that are not suggestive. 

To start with our discussion of strategies for interviewing, the timing of the first interview is critical.  Odinot, et al. (2013) found that test subjects interviewed immediately after watching videos of a crime being committed provided more new details in a second interview than test subjects whose first interview after watching the video was delayed.  As the authors note, “this research shows for the first time, how critical the timing of a first interview is and it supports the use of interview protocols where information can be gathered from witnesses as soon as possible after an event is witnessed.”  The authors reason that “because more information is retrieved in the initial interview (than would otherwise be recalled) there may be a greater chance that these details will be used as memory cues in future interviews and/or that an earlier cognitive interview reduces forgetting of details.”  The research demonstrates that if you want to get the most complete account of an event from witnesses, the first interview should be completed shortly after the event is witnessed, when possible.

In the worker’s compensation setting, this often will require the employer to conduct the first interview since there is typically a delay between when the employer reports the injury to the insurer and the time when the claim handler assigned to the case begins her investigation.  Hence, it is critical that employers be provided with the tools to conduct an effective interview.  This could come in the form of employee training or use of a thorough interview checklist or both.  In addition, given the importance of the timing of the first interview, insurers may be wise to institute procedures that ensure a claim handler or investigation specialist is available on the same day a claim is received to conduct the necessary interviews if the insurer cannot rely on the employer.

Unfortunately, insurers in personal injury claims are often at a disadvantage compared to insurers in worker’s compensation claims because they do not have a surrogate, like an employer, who is “on the ground” and can act in their stead.  Insurers in personal injury claims are generally at the mercy of the parties involved in the accident to promptly report the claim.  A personal injury insurer thus cannot conduct any interviews until after a claim has been submitted and only then if the parties have exchanged accurate information.  Otherwise the insurer may experience a delay in getting enough witness information to conduct interviews.  In the personal injury setting, insurers should have a policy of proactively securing witness information and conducting interviews within 24 hours of the occurrence when possible.

Another useful finding from Odinot, et al. is that “a repeated interview yielded on average, 21% of previously unreported details…”  Of note, Odinot, et al. did not find that reminiscence reduced study participants’ accuracy and specifically reported that “contradictory testimonies were extremely rare…”  The results of the study demonstrate that “two cognitive interviews can elicit more information than just one.”  Other studies have also found that multiple interviews elicit more information than a single interview and that the additional information, though technically inconsistent, was nonetheless accurate.

These findings suggest that to obtain the most accurate and complete witness testimony, two interviews should be conducted rather than just one.  We tend to think that reminiscence is an inconsistency that should be viewed with suspicion; however, Odinot, et al. (and other studies) show that reminiscence is in fact accurate.  If we want the fullest and most accurate witness statements, we should accept that a second interview will likely produce more information than just one interview and that so long as the additional information is not contradictory, it is likely to be accurate.  As noted above, Odinot, et al. concluded that “there may be a greater chance that these details [from the first interview] will be used as memory cues in future interviews and/or that an earlier cognitive interview reduces forgetting of details.”  Fisher, et al. demonstrate that reminiscence shoud generally be considered accurate:  “No matter how we scored the data, there was no evidence to support the ‘Courtroom’ theory that reminiscence is predictive of inaccuracy of the overall testimony.” Remarkably, even witnesses who made many contradictory statements were found to have an overall accurate recollection when taking out the contradictory statements.

To get the most out of the interview process, some simple rules should be followed.  First, at least two interviews should be conducted.  This is the best way to guarantee the most complete information will be obtained.  Second, the first interview should be completed as soon as possible after the event, preferably on the same day.  The second interview should occur after a delay of at least one day but no more than seven days.  Third, all questions should be open-ended and non-suggestive.  The reason is that numerous studies demonstrate that asking closed questions such as “did the suspect have facial hair?” produce inaccurate witness recollection when compared to open questions such as, “what did the person look like?”  Studies also demonstrate that suggestive questioning causes witness inaccuracy by cuing the witness into a detail or answer that may not reflect what the witness actually saw.  Suggestive questions cause witnesses to think that the suggested answer is the correct one and so they will blend or bend their memory to accommodate the suggestion and hence provide an inaccurate answer.  Fourth, the first and second interview should be conducted by the same person.  For reasons not entirely understood, both reminiscence and accuracy increase when both interview are conducted by the same person.  Following these steps will help ensure that you obtain the most complete and accurate information possible, which will ensure that the story you tell is the most credible one.

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