In the ancient world, epic poems started in medias res, in the middle of things. Although (most) IME reports are not larger-than-life in scope, they do share some characteristics with epic poems. Knowing these shared characteristics is useful to keep in mind when reading IME reports and forming opinions about them. Most noteworthy is the simple fact that IME reports start, like classic poems, in the middle of things. Ancient Greek and Roman authors and critics understood that most texts, even when grand in scope, arise in a specific context and consequently cannot be understood adequately unless the reader is familiar with the history leading up to the events the text describes or depicts. For example, Homer (an ancient Greek poet) would have expected his audience for the Iliad (a story about the Trojan War) to know the historical and mythological background of the Trojan War. As such, the Iliad would not have been judged in a vacuum, but would instead have been judged in a commonly understood historical-mythological context.
An IME report is, in this regard, no different from the Iliad. We cannot judge the value of a report without giving due consideration to the content of the historical facts on which the report rests and how effectively the report deals with them. The Iliad is nothing more than an impressively long, rather disjointed, and perplexing poem unless the reader grasps the history and myths that suffuse the poems and Homer’s treatment of historical and mythological events. Likewise, an IME report cannot be fairly judged unless the reader grasps the evidence that was available to the expert at the time she wrote the report.
How do you judge an IME report? What is your criteria for what constitutes a good IME report?
Cover letters vary in length and thoroughness from the prolix (40+ pages) to the terse (one sentence). The question is how much is enough? Without a doubt, the most important part of the cover letter is the specific questions asked. Beyond that, the amount of information to include is a matter of personal preference. At a minimum most physicians appreciate knowing who the writer represents and a short neutral summary of the claim. Most physicians do not require (and many will not read) lengthy summaries of the medical records because they do not want to be influenced by another’s interpretation of the records. That being said, many physicians will pay attention when the writer points out a few of the critical pieces of evidence or records. To ensure that the physician addresses anything the writer specifically points to, it is best to ask the physician to address the specific evidence or records in the specific questions section as well. Beyond this, how much or little to include is ultimately up to the writer.
In drafting the cover letter, it helps to remember that the letter is being sent to a medical expert and not a legal expert. Using legal jargon when lay terms are available has the potential to confuse the expert. In cases where legal jargon is necessary, the writer should consider defining the term for the expert to avoid confusion. For example, a worker’s compensation attorney will understand the phrase, “We were impleaded into the case by Respondent X,” while a physician probably will not. Hence, it would be useful to explain to the doctor, “which means that the other insurance company brought us into the case based on Dr. Y’s opinion.” Using simple and clear language and avoiding jargon will go a long way to ensuring that the expert will understand your cover letter and exactly what needs to be answered.
There is no magic bullet that will give us a perfect IME report. However, careful drafting of the cover letter can help ensure that the expert addresses all (and only) the relevant issues. A concise and clear cover letter will also help the expert better understand the claim and the salient evidence. Thus, the cover letter is an important tool that can help you get the best IME possible.
Share your cover letter tips with us.
When approaching the IME cover letter, do you use a standard battery of questions? If you do, you most likely want to ensure that the expert answers questions related to all aspects of a worker’s compensation claim. Making sure your questions cover such topics as history of injury, diagnosis, causation (direct; precipitation, aggravation, and acceleration; mere manifestation; and occupational exposure), healing period/maximum medical improvement, past treatment, future treatment, temporary work restrictions, permanent work restrictions, and permanent partial disability.
The advantage of asking a standard battery of questions for every case is that nothing will be forgotten or left out. A great approach for less experienced claims handlers. In addition, if the questions are phrased consistently with the legal standard the writer ensures the expert’s opinion will meet the appropriate legal standard for each question.
The detriment to this approach is that it relies on the expert to identify all critical evidence and records and cite them in their answers to the specific questions. This can be problematic when the writer considers evidence or records to be critical that the doctor does not. If there is an issue the writer wants the doctor to address, the only way to guarantee the doctor will address it is to specifically ask the doctor to address it in the specific interrogatives section and the standard battery of questions approach doesn’t allow for this type of customization.
Additionally, the practice of asking a set battery of questions can produce untoward results if the questions address issues that the injured worker himself has not raised. For example, an injured worker may claim that he suffered a traumatic injury to his knee in a specific work incident, but he also has engaged in frequent and repetitive squatting, kneeling, and crawling for the last 20 years of his employment. If the standard battery of questions is asked, including a question on whether the injured worker’s occupational exposure was a material contributory causative factor in the onset or progression of his knee condition, the expert may conclude that the specific incident did not cause the injured worker’s knee condition but may also conclude that the occupational exposure did. Hence, it is possible that asking the expert a question about an issue that has not been raised or is not yet ripe can result in creating a claim that was not there.
In summary, the standard battery of questions approach has the advantage of being thorough and preventing any issues from going unanswered. It is also a good way of ensuring an inexperienced claims handler covers all the issues at hand. However, it also has the potential to create claims where none existed. If using the “standard battery” approach, it is best to at least consider the relevant issues and decide if additional questions really need to be asked and answered.
If you use the “standard battery” approach to specific interrogative questions let us know what questions you routinely use and why. What kind of results do you get?
Tailoring questions to the individual issues of the injury claim is a popular approach among Worker’s Compensation attorneys (both defense and plaintiff). The advantage is having the doctor directly address only the issues at hand. This approach will often cite specific facts or records and ask the doctor to address how the facts or records affect the claim for injury or compensation. For example, the doctor may be asked whether the injured worker’s statement to an emergency room doctor that his back has been bothering him on-and-off for several months suggests that his current symptoms relate to a preexisting condition rather than to the specific industrial injury at issue.
The benefit of this approach is that the writer uses the question to ensure that the doctor addresses a critical piece of evidence in their answer. The writer cannot ensure that the physician will address a critical piece of evidence if the writer asks a generic question such as, “what is your opinion on whether the injured worker’s current condition relates to the industrial injury?” Using a tailored question is the most effective way to focus the physician’s attention on specific evidence or records that the writer knows are critical to the claim. It also ensures other issues that were previously irrelevant to the claim are not inadvertently brought out by the expert.
The detriment to this approach is that it can be difficult to ask a tailored question that is not leading. In Wisconsin worker’s compensation cases, attorneys have considerably more leeway on direct examination than they would be given in a civil, personal injury case; nevertheless, it is possible that a blatantly leading question could be deemed impermissible. Also, tailored questions can be seen as compromising the reviewing physician’s independence. The expert is being retained to issue an independent opinion and while it is true that the expert, especially in worker’s compensation, will be expected to answer specific questions related to the claim, it is also true that the ALJ will expect the expert to reach her own conclusion and not merely parrot a conclusion suggested in a question. In addition, the writer must be careful when drafting tailored questions that the questions are broad enough in their entirety to ensure that the expert addresses all of the relevant issues in the case.
In summary, the tailored question approach has the advantage of ensuring that the expert will addresses critical evidence or records in her report and not bring other unconnected issues into the scope of the evaluation. The writer who takes this approach should, however, take care to draft the questions so that they are not impermissibly leading and do not compromise the experts independence.
Do you have any advice for drafting questions? Or maybe a particular approach that has worked well for you?
The most common approach to cover letter questions in personal injury litigation is to completely avoid asking specific questions. The reason has to do with the nature of discoverable information in civil litigation. Since all communications between the attorney and the medical expert are discoverable, some attorneys prefer not to tip their hand to opposing counsel by asking questions that might reveal their strategy or approach to the case. In addition, the doctor is the retaining party’s witness so leading questions in a cover letter may be deemed impermissible. Hence, some attorneys will not risk asking a specific question that could be deemed leading and result in the doctor’s answer being stricken from the report.
Those who take this approach do not want to be seen as influencing the independent physician’s opinion in any way. This can be especially significant if the case ends up in front of a jury because jurors are considerably less skeptical of medical experts’ independence. But, the detriment to not asking specific questions is that this approach relies solely on the doctor to glean the relevant information and issues that need to be addressed from the materials provided. Sometimes the issues to be addressed are obvious, but sometimes they are not.
The risk of not asking any specific questions is the report may not address all of the issues that need to be addressed. This is a very real possibility if no communication takes place with the expert concerning the issues of the case.
This approach for Worker’s Compensation may be a convoluted way to get to the same result as if questions were asked. Additionally, the concerns in a Worker’s Compensation case are not the same because there is no jury to worry about and there is no concerns about leading a witness.
Do you ask specific questions or do you let the doctor provide information to the doctor and simply ask for conclusions? Why?
At Medical Systems, we see a lot of cover letters! Many include questions in the body of the letter that are not included in the specific questions section. Unfortunately, this approach frequently causes problems because many doctors only directly answer questions in the specific questions section of the report. Thus, writers are often surprised when they ask a specific question in the body of the cover letter but the doctor does not specifically answer it.
The reasons for this disconnect between writer and expert are simple. Questions buried in the cover letter’s medical record summary may not be answered because not all experts read the cover letter’s summary of medical records. Why? Because they do not want to be influenced by the writer’s take on the claim. Additionally, many experts assume (rightly or wrongly) that the only questions they are being retained to answer are those that are posed in the specific interrogatives section and do not look anywhere but there for questions. Finally, some experts simply forget the questions that have been asked outside of the specific questions section by the time they dictate the report. Hence, they will often only be looking at the specific questions when they are dictating their general impressions and specific answers.
The bottom line is that if a writer wants a question answered, she should ask it in the specific questions section. The specific interrogatives section is your best opportunity to communicate directly with doctor. Doctors read cover letters with varying degrees of thoroughness. All doctors, however, read the specific questions section of the report. Therefore, the specific questions should be drafted carefully to elicit precisely the information sought – no more or no less. The last thing you want is to get an IME report back and find that the doctor did not address an issue that needed to be addressed.
What strategy do you use for cover letter questions? And Why?
In most cases, the cover letter is the first, last, and only time you will be able to explain the case to the IME doctor and to ask specific questions about the case. As a result, the cover letter is an important document. The question, however, is how important is the cover letter? How much of a difference can a good cover letter make? Can the cover letter determine the outcome of an opinion or even have any impact on the doctor’s opinion?
Like most things in the medico-legal world, the answer is not black or white. Cover letters matter more for some doctors than others: sometimes the cover letter can help shape how an IME doctor answers a question, sometimes the cover letter can precipitate a bad result, and sometimes the cover letter will make little difference in the IME doctor’s opinion. Nevertheless, there are some basic rules that can ensure the reviewing physician squarely addresses the relevant issues and maximize the likelihood of receiving a favorable opinion.
The most important feature of the IME cover letter is the specific questions section, often titled “specific interrogatives.” As a matter of semantics, there is no functional difference between the words “questions” and “interrogatives” though “interrogatives” at least feels more formal. The specific questions posed to an IME physician are often the only questions that an IME physician will answer directly so there is much utility in how the questions are drafted.
How do you approach cover letter questions? What is important to you in drafting a cover letter?
In the UK, the “whiplash capital of Europe,” for every single accident reported, there are 2.7 claims for whiplash damages. In the United States, whiplash injuries make up for 25% of payments made by insurance companies, with approximately $2.7 billion being paid out annually. So, it is clear that whiplash is a claim to be reckoned with.
So, what exactly is whiplash? Whiplash is caused by the head’s jerking action pulling muscles and ligaments beyond their typical range of motion, causing fibers to tear. Torn fibers in muscle or tendon is termed a “strain.” If it involves a ligament, it is referred to as a “sprain.” Whiplash often involves a combined strain and sprain. A whiplash injury can involve cervical muscles, intervertebral joints, disks, ligaments and/or nerve roots. Most often it is limited to soft-tissue injury. However, whiplash injuries can be complex and could include many related problems such as joint dysfunction, disk herniation, nervous system problems, chronic pain, and cognitive dysfunction.
Symptoms of whiplash become apparent usually within the first 24 hours following the accident, but typically appear within the first six to 12 hours. Symptoms can continue to get worse days after the injury. Common symptoms often include neck pain and stiffness, and headaches that usually start at the base of the skull. Other symptoms might include: dizziness, pain that hurts more with neck movement, fatigue, loss of range of motion in the neck, tingling or numbness in the arms, and/or tenderness or pain in the upper back, shoulder or arms.
Risk factors for whiplash include degenerative disease, pre-existing health problems, vehicle size, headrest position, position of head at impact, and age. Women and children are more seriously injured then men because they have smaller necks. Not using the shoulder harness and failure to wear a seatbelt greatly increase the risk of whiplash injury.
So, how is whiplash treated? Usually, recovery is complete within the first few months, though some people experience ongoing symptoms. Generally, symptoms that extend beyond six months are considered chronic. Typically, treatment includes pain medication and special exercises to help increase range of motion in the neck.
Here are some interesting facts about whiplash:
Want to learn more about Whiplash? Register to attend the 2017 Advanced Topics in Civil Litigation. For more information or to register, click here.
Surveys show that two out of every three employers viewed prescription drug abuse as a bigger workplace problem than illegal drugs. One in five reported an injury or near-miss related to prescription drug use. A quarter indicated employees borrowed or sold prescription drugs at work and 40% indicate that they have an employee who misses work because of prescription drug abuse. The Centers for Disease Control report that 44 persons die each day as a result of prescription opioid abuse. Everyone is at risk for addiction, but here are some factors that increase the risk:
How can you tell if someone you know is abusing drugs? It may be difficult to notice first thing in the morning or upon return from break because the employee may appear to be relaxed and functioning well. But, as the day goes on and more time passes between breaks you may notice mood swings or major changes in energy level. They may nod off or even fall asleep at their workstation, in their car, or while using the bathroom. Withdrawal symptoms often appear to be like the flu with nausea, diarrhea, sweating, shaking, aches and a runny nose, and the employee may become irritable and anxious. This cycle may repeat itself several times throughout the day. Other signs might include the development of financial problems, social withdrawal and a once outgoing worker may become quiet and grim.
What can employers do to prevent drug abuse in the workplace? Conduct pre-employment and random drug screenings (but make sure opioid screening is included). Create a clearly written Drug-Free Workplace Policy which provides employee education, supervisor training, and an employee assistance program.
The problem of opioid abuse in the workplace is staggering. In Wisconsin 80% of worker’s compensation claims involve pain medications, including opioids. One good way to make sure addiction doesn’t occur in the first place is to closely monitor injured workers who are prescribed opioids by their treating doctors. For worker’s compensation cases, Involving nurse case managers after opioids are prescribed may be beneficial to assuring that drug use is monitored and treating physicians are being held accountable for the prescriptions they write.
The topic for the 2017 Advanced Topics in Worker’s Compensation Symposium will be Opioid Abuse in the Workplace. For more information or to register, click here.
OSHA has made some changes to how employers track work injuries that brings drug policies into question. The new final rule, passed in May of 2016 and goes into effect January 1, 2017, states that employees have a right to report work-related injuries and illnesses free from retaliation. That is to say an employer’s procedure for reporting work injuries must be reasonable and not deter or discourage employees from reporting. The concern is if an employer has a mandatory drug test following a work injury, an employee under the influence of drugs or alcohol when their work injury occurred may not report it.
Interestingly, OSHA feels that this rule will prevent injuries, illnesses and death. Their thinking is that all work injuries will be reported and workplace hazards will be better identified and eliminated. This makes good sense if drugs or alcohol didn’t play an active role in the actual occurrence of injury. Of course, the exception would be drug testing following an accident for the purpose of complying with state or federal law or regulation.
While the rule doesn’t specifically prohibit drug testing of employees, it does prohibit employers from using drug testing as a form of retaliation against employees who report injuries or illnesses. So, beginning in January of 2017, employers will need a compelling reason for post-accident drug testing. The view on this is it will be very difficult for employers to prove it was “reasonable” for them to do any kind of post-incident testing on a worker reporting injury without having another law to point to. OSHA says that employer policies should limit post-accident testing to situations where drug use is likely to have contributed to the incident. For example, it would not be appropriate to drug-test an employee reporting a repetitive strain injury or bee sting. Employers do not have to specifically suspect drug use before testing, but there should be a reasonable possibility that drug use by the reporting employee contributed to the injury. So the million dollar question becomes, what is the definition of “reasonable possibility?”