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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Medical News Today has an article on exciting research in the pharmacological management of chronic pain. The research, published in Neuron, found that persons with a particular genetic profile experience considerably less low back pain than the general population. Such persons have a gene variant that causes them to produce less of the protein BH4 than normal. Researchers postulated that BH4 is at least partly responsible for the development of chronic nerve pain. To test the hypothesis, they engineered mice to overproduce BH4 and found these mice were hypersensitive to pain even without injury. They then engineered mice that produced no BH4 and found those mice to have considerably less sensitive to pain than normal.
The real breakthrough, however, was in the researchers’ next step: pharmacological control of BH4. "We wanted to use pharmacologic means to get the same effect as the gene variant," says Alban Latremoliere, PhD, of Boston Children's Kirby Center, who led the current study. As Medical News Today reports, the researchers caused a peripheral nerve injury in laboratory mice and then “blocked BH4 production using a specifically designed drug that targets sepiapterin reductase (SPR), a key enzyme that makes BH4. The drug reduced the pain hypersensitivity induced by the nerve injury (or accompanying inflammation) but did not affect nociceptive pain--the protective pain sensation that helps us avoid injury.” This could be a hugely important development in the pharmacological management of chronic pain in people as the method would offer an option that could effectively manage pain without any of the addictive or other deleterious effects of narcotic pain medication.
Anyone who has spent any time in worker’s compensation claims knows that many, many claims are fraught with problems that aren’t wholly medical or psychological, but that are problems arising out of the workplace injury that nonetheless impact the claim. An apt term for these sorts of problems is “psychosocial difficulties.” Psychosocial difficulties “refer to impairments of body functions under central nervous system control, activity limitations, and participation restrictions such as concentrating, sleeping, maintaining energy levels, anxiety, making and maintaining relationships and keeping a job.” When we encounter a worker’s compensation claim we tend to focus on “medicals and indemnity” because worker’s compensation laws require insurers and self-insurers to pay medical expenses and indemnity expenses and not much else. The problem with this narrow focus is that a worker’s compensation claimant is a human being that lives in a particular psychosocial milieu. Psychosocial difficulties arise because of the “interaction of the health condition, environmental and personal factors.” The fact is that when a worker’s compensation claim is made, claims administrators may be authorizing payments for medical expenses and indemnity expenses, but the path that the claim takes is driven by the interaction of the health condition, the personal, and the environmental, which may include factors beyond the strict purview of worker’s compensation laws. Although extralegal, these other factors may have a profound impact on the nature of the claim and whether it can be administered effectively.
Common examples of “extralegal” factors include such things as financial security, access to secondary income, family stability, addiction, intelligence, etc. In the world of brain injuries and conditions, caregivers and medical practitioners have begun to realize psychosocial difficulties “are common across brain disorders” which “challenges the premise that the medical diagnosis has to be the driver or care.” In the context of brain injuries and disorders, “what people really care about is to be able to continue with their lives.” Hence, approaches to care which focus on helping them “continue with their lives” have been found to be effective. The bottom line is that “the difficulties people with health conditions face in their lives do not only relate to their health conditions but also to personal factors and the context in which they live.” The experience of injury and disability is likewise personal and driven by individual circumstances rather than being uniform across injury types. This impacts everything from treatment response to recovery to motivation to return to work. Hence, in two otherwise similarly situated persons with work-related meniscus tears, one returns to work within a few weeks of surgery while the other person takes many months to recover and experiences progressively increasing complaints ultimately leading to a total knee replacement.
When a person is injured, we consider the condition to be a medical one. When operating from the cognitive modality, we then assume that treating the injury will heal the person. However, the medical aspect of an injury is just one aspect. Injury, though physical or mental in nature, has myriad aspects that affect the life of the injured person. Often the psychosocial aspects of injury are more difficult for an injured person to manage or get over than the actual physical injury itself. When this is the case, claims become difficult because doctors tend to throw up their hands and say they can do nothing more for the person. From a claims perspective, this often triggers an attempt to shut the claim down, or at least end payment of medical expenses. The problem is that even when “medical interventions are exhausted…, interventions targeting [psychosocial disorders] can contribute tremendously to achieving a fulfilled life…” Thus claims administrators often find themselves in the difficult and unenviable position of not having anything to offer to an injured worker who clearly has problems related (in their mind or in reality) to the work injury. The position is difficult because the injured worker will often blame their condition on the worker’s compensation carrier and seek further benefits out of the belief, misguided or not, that continued receipt of worker’s compensation benefits can somehow make her whole again or at least offer the hope of remedy from the effects of the workplace injury. Frequently these “effects” are not primarily medical but instead are a result of the cascade of psychosocial problems that follow injury, interruption of employment, and diminished physical functioning.
One way to address the psychosocial difficulties is to allow injured worker’s to provide narratives of what is going on in their lives as part of the claims process. While this information, or at least pieces of it, often comes out during the course of a claim, it is usually the product of defensive behavior most commonly uttered in frustration, i.e. “but how am I going to pay my rent?” Instead, it might be beneficial to seek out the information actively, to ask claimants what is going on in their lives and how the injury is affecting them. Certainly it will provide good will and may assuage some of the claimant’s anger, but it also could have the benefit of figuring out what is really going on and how that will impact the life of the claim. If a person is frustrated because they can no longer perform an activity, perhaps a claims administrator would be able to direct her to a simple and cost-effective means by which the person can improve or restore their level of function. It can only help a claims administrator to understand what really matters to the injured worker.
It very well may be that the claims administrator will not be able to do much about issues that fall outside the purview of worker’s compensation; nevertheless, it cannot hurt to find out what all of the issues a claimant is facing and learning this information may help a claims administrator arrive at creative and effective solutions in what otherwise seem to be intractable claims. In addition, the earlier the discussion of psychosocial difficulties takes place, the earlier the claimant, with or without help from the claims administrator, can begin to address the difficulties. The sooner psychosocial difficulties are addressed, the sooner claimants are likely to accept their physical condition and move forward in adapting to it. This has the potential to reduce recovery times and to mitigate against the worst effects of disability, thereby potentially lowering both perceived and actual levels of permanent impairment. The law tells us what we have to do, but sometimes doing a little more can go a long way to making potentially problematic claims manageable.
Claims with chronic whiplash symptoms that develop after a low-speed motor vehicle accident are often difficult. The defense points to imaging studies that do not demonstrate evidence of pathology. The plaintiff points to a prior history of normal health without any neck problems or pain complaints. Each side points to their evidence and asks the jury (if the case goes to trial) to reach their preferred conclusion:
The defense will point to the low speed of the impact to demonstrate that their position is more credible, i.e. the speed was so low no person could have suffered more than a minor, temporary neck strain. The plaintiff will try to counter this with evidence that the speed of the striking vehicle at impact cannot accurately convey the forces transmitted to the plaintiff’s cervical spinal column and musculature. In truth, there is little direct evidence that supports either side’s position in these claims.
That may be changing, though. Researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University have uncovered what may be objective evidence supporting the claims of chronic whiplash injuries that arise in approximately 25% of all rear-end motor vehicle accidents. Specifically, the researchers found evidence of fatty deposits that accumulated in persons who went on to suffer chronic whiplash injuries in fat and water MRI scans taken within one to two weeks after the initial injury. Specifically, the MRI scans demonstrated “large amounts of fat infiltrating the patients’ neck muscles, indicating rapid atrophy.” Lead Investigator James Elliott stated that “we believe this represents an injury that is more severe than what might be expected from a typical low-speed car crash.”
The significance of the findings, if replicated, could be great for personal injury claims involving allegations of chronic whiplash injuries. If the water-fat ratio in neck muscles becomes an accepted objective test of whiplash injury chronicity, it could take the guesswork out of these claims. This of course seems like it would be a boon to plaintiffs’ claims; however, the defense would benefit also because it would limit chronic whiplash injury claims to those with objective evidence of injury. In short, it could potentially provide definitive evidence of which claims are legitimate and which claims are not. A residual beneficial effect for both sides would be more effective treatment. As Elliott notes, chronic whiplash patients “may require a more concerted effort for pain management from their physician and help from a psychologist.” Better treatment started sooner would be good for everyone involved in whiplash claims.
Lately it seems like we are stuck in a feedback loop: yet another study has found a common treatment modality for acute low back pain to be much less effective than assumed. In this case, medical researchers found that low dose oral corticosteroids (i.e. prednisone) did not improve pain and offered only modest functional improvement among patients suffering from acute sciatica due to a herniated lumbar disk. According to lead author Harley Goldberg, DO, a spine care specialist at Kaiser Permanente's San Jose Medical Center, "[t]hese findings suggest that a short course of oral steroids (prednisone) is unlikely to provide much benefit for patients with sciatica due to a herniated disk in the lower back.” Researchers also found that “oral steroids did not reduce the likelihood of undergoing surgery in the year following steroid treatment.” Given the apparently modest benefits of oral steroid treatment for acute sciatica and the known deleterious effects of negative treatment history, it would seem prudent for researchers to verify the results of the study as soon as possible. Otherwise we will all be stuck paying for treatment that doesn’t work and could possibly render later treatment modalities less effective.
Cogito ergo sum. These words of Descartes are more commonly known to English speakers as “I think therefore I am.” But what have they to do with medical treatment or medico-legal claims? Quite a bit actually. Descartes is famous among philosophers (a relative sort of fame) for arguing that the mind and the body are distinct entities. We see evidence of this intellectual approach in our distinction between the biological and the psychological. Take brain injuries as an example. We distinguish between what we consider to be organic, neurological injuries from the psychological effects of injury. Hence the distinction between post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. The belief in dualism is extended into the legal realm also, where we have higher standards for proving mental only worker’s compensation injuries than mental injuries in worker’s compensation that arise out of a physical trauma. But is our insistence on this dualism, that mind and body are separate entities, valid?
Much research suggests that our conception of mind and body as separate entities is not so clear cut as we would like to believe. A good example of why we should be wary of separating the psychological from the physical involves the placebo effect. Another example involves treatment history. A group of researchers from German universities and Oxford University authored a 2014 study in which they found that treatment history experience has an astonishingly large effect on subsequent treatment, even when the type of treatment changed. In their study they gave patients analgesic medication delivered through a patch and then later switched to a different analgesic medication delivered through a topical cream. They found that those who responded positively to the first treatment also responded positively to the second treatment. More significantly, the authors found that those who responded negatively to the first treatment also responded negatively to the second treatment despite being given a different medication with a different delivery mechanism.
The findings are significant because the study “results may … challenge step care approaches in which treatment failure has to precede the prescription of next-in-line interventions.” The treatment carryover effect could have a big impact on problematic claims where acute injuries become chronic condition and nothing seems to help. As the authors note, “treatment experiences are ubiquitous in clinical care, particularly in patients suffering from chronic diseases. Carry-over effects might therefore be particularly relevant in chronic conditions where treatments often fail repetitively and negative treatment experiences accumulate along the course of the disease.” The authors suggest that targeted therapy, whether explicit psychological counseling or more implicit methods, could be used to address and attempt to overcome negative treatment history.
The study demonstrates that our minds and bodies are not as separate as we sometimes like to think they are. This can be frustrating when administering medico-legal claims because we want concrete answers. We want diagnostic images to have a one-to-one correlation with physical complaints. We want to know that if someone is prescribed a medicine, that it will work. Unfortunately, medical science tells us that the healing and treatment process is more complicated. While the treatment history study demonstrates the unpredictability of the healing process, it does offer learning opportunities. At a minimum, if we see a failed treatment history we then know that the likelihood of the next intervention working is diminished. In addition, knowing the effects of treatment history can provide a reason to have claimants undergo independent medical examinations. Once a pattern of failed treatment history develops, an independent medical examination may be worthwhile to attempt to halt the seemingly endless spiral of failed treatments.
The business of sorting out what is organic or biological from what is psychological is messy and probably futile. Perhaps it is time that we put Descartes to rest and start thinking of the mind and body as inextricably linked, so inextricably linked that they are not in effect different. Ego sum. That’s it. In the claims experience, this should help us deal with and understand the myriad responses to similar injuries that different claimants have.
Reason #1: Employers shall not use doctors “employed on a regular basis by the employer” when seeking FMLA second opinions. We have a large number of doctors to choose from and can track how many times you have used the same doctor.
Medical Systems, Inc., we’re not just for worker’s compensation any more.
Medical News Today reports on a significant new study (fee or subscription required) of what causes episodes of acute low back pain. Critically, the study’s authors concluded that most physical and psychosocial triggers of acute low back pain can be modified. Per Medical News Today, some of the findings include:
Unusually, the study “also found that age was a factor in triggering back pain when lifting heavy loads - with younger people being significantly more likely to suffer an episode of acute low back pain after such activity than older people.” This certainly will be counterintuitive for claims administrators and attorneys in the worker’s compensation field as conventional wisdom suggests older age is directly proportional to low back injuries rather than the inverse as was found in the study. Regardless, the most important thing is to utilize knowledge from the study to reduce episodes of acute low back pain in the workplace. Manuela Ferreira, lead author stated the matter succinctly:
Our findings enhance knowledge of low back pain triggers and will assist the development of new prevention programs that can reduce suffering from this potentially disabling condition.