Early MRI Could Mean More Expensive Claims
In a study of work-related lower back pain claims, patients who received an early MRI had medical costs $12,000 higher and were on disability about 120 days longer than those that didn’t have the test, on average.
“One out of every five people that has fairly benign lower back pain gets an early MRI that they really shouldn’t get,” said Dr. Glenn Pransky, director of the Center for Disability research. “They then have a much higher risk to go on to receive a lot of treatments that aren’t necessarily helpful.”
Most likely, physicians have not been well-educated in the proper application of evidence-based medicine and the judicious use of MRIs in assessing back pain.” — Dr. Rupali Das, executive medical director of California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation.
Evidence-based guidelines state that MRI should not be indicated for non-specific, non-radicular lower back pain. And even in instances where “red flag” conditions exist – like severe traumatic injury or possibility for cancer or infection – guidelines suggest a month of conservative treatment before revisiting the need for an MRI.
“This study came from earlier work we had done, where we surveyed providers, giving them case scenarios and asking what they would do as their initial management of acute back pain in a workers’ comp setting,” said Barbara Webster, lead author of the recent study from the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety on the early use of MRI. “And we were struck. Despite what the guidelines said, many of them would order an MRI.”
“Most likely, physicians have not been well-educated in the proper application of evidence-based medicine and the judicious use of MRIs in assessing back pain,” said Dr. Rupali Das, the executive medical director of California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. “Physicians may be unaware of false positives and lack of specificity with MRIs. It may be easier to order a test than to counsel a patient on proper exercise and behavior. Patients also may play a role in demanding tests and some physicians may find it easier to comply with the request than to explain why a test is not needed or may actually be harmful.”
Those tendencies mean workers’ comp payers end up taking on costs for unnecessary tests and subsequent treatments dealing with issues unrelated to the original claim. That means more time away from work and more expensive claims. Workers’ comp payers may be missing an opportunity to catch inappropriate tests through utilization review, which would help produce better outcomes and contain costs.
“Our studies suggest that requests for early imaging tests should go through utilization review,” Webster said. “It’s likely that if providers are following OEM and ACOEM guidelines, it won’t be certified within the first 30 days.
Das suggested that payers start with “a carrot approach” by providing education on the existing guidelines for treatment, including initial management, and the proper indications that may warrant an early MRI.
“With the involvement of a medical director, the usage of MRIs can be measured, and inappropriate usage assessed,” he said. “Outreach and appropriate intervention should be directed at providers with a pattern of ordering tests inappropriately.”
Fee-for service payment models may incentivize physicians to order more tests, but quality and outcome-based payment proposed by the Affordable Care Act should dampen that trend.
“Many organizations are now educating their members about the proper use of radiologic tests, including MRIs,” Das said. “Hopefully younger physicians will be better educated about evidence-based practices.
MRIs can reveal age-related abnormalities, like compressed and degenerated discs in the spine, that may have nothing to do with what’s causing the back pain, Webster and Pransky said.
“In one study, MRIs found significant abnormalities in 60 percent of people sampled,” Pransky said. “Human tendency is to point to the abnormality as the cause of the pain, and suggest surgery or injection to treat it. It can be hard to dissuade people from thinking that’s not the source of the problem.”
“The natural history of many conditions causing lower back pain is that half of them will resolve themselves without the need for further imaging or surgery,” Webster said.
Hospitals Are Not Getting Safer
Nearly 15 years ago, the Institute of Medicine report “To Err is Human” drew attention to the disturbing number of preventable deaths in hospitals.
According to recent testimony by a panel of patient safety leaders to the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, there has been little progress in addressing this issue in the 15 years since, despite all of the increased regulations. In fact, preventable medical errors in hospitals are now the third leading cause of death in the US, only after heart disease and cancer.
“The problem of patients dying or being harmed because of preventable medical errors in U.S. hospitals remains [a] grave consequence that is not getting enough attention,” according to the Senate subcommittee chairman.
There are five main types of preventable medical errors. The question is, who in our industry is watching out for these errors, and where does responsibility for oversight end and begin?
- Errors of omission: Provider fails to perform an obvious, necessary action, like prescribing a certain medication.
- Errors of commission: A mistaken action harms a patient, like surgery on the wrong body part.
- Errors of communication: Miscommunication or failed communication between providers, or between a provider(s) and patient, such as a failure to warn a patient about the risks of certain activities.
- Errors of context: Provider does not account for the unique constraints in a patient’s life, like not having reasonable access to follow-up care.
- Diagnostic errors: Harm to the patient resulting from delayed, wrong, ineffective, or no treatment.
A recent study by Patient Safety America estimated that the 98,000 preventable error deaths cited in the Institute of Medicine’s original 2000 report may have been severely understated, and the real number could be closer to 440,000 deaths annually.
That is roughly equivalent to 148 September 11th attacks every year.
In fact, preventable medical errors in hospitals are now the third leading cause of death in the US, only after heart disease and cancer.
This is only preventable deaths. It doesn’t include infections and sickness that did not result in death.
Even without human error, the potential for hospital-acquired infections is immense. There are thousands of patients coughing and touching furnishings and other items, which are then touched by relatives and staff. It is almost impossible to prevent the spread of disease and infection in this environment.
And this doesn’t even factor in issues of inappropriate treatment, over-treatment, over-medication, or unnecessary surgeries, which can result in a poor prognosis for individuals who may already be in fragile health.
I am not a big fan of politicizing an issue, but this transcends politics. Hospitals attract the sickest of the sick people. That is what they are there for, but we as an industry need to focus on reducing the potential for preventable deaths in hospitals.
We need to focus on directing people to healthier options — whether non-surgical alternatives, the best providers, or non-hospital based surgeries and treatment.
We may never know when our actions prevent a health complication, or even death, but any time we can lower a patient’s risk, everyone is better off.
A Dreaming Team
Chris Thorn is known as one of the most creative risk managers in the business. After all, his risk management program hit the cover of Risk & Insurance® in March, 2012.
Now the senior manager, payments and risk, for Southwest Airlines is working with Riskonnect, a technology partner that he thinks can take his program to new heights.
“For us, it’s a platform that gives you so many different tools that if you can dream it, you can build it,” said Thorn.
Thorn ditched his legacy risk management information system in 2012 and started working with Riskonnect, initially using the platform solely for liability claims management.
But the system’s “do-it-yourself” accessibility almost immediately caught the eye of Thorn’s colleagues managing safety risk and workers’ compensation.
“They were seeking a software solution at the time and said, ‘Hey, we want to join the party,” Thorn recalls of his friends in safety and workers’ compensation.
“For us, it’s a platform that gives you so many different tools that if you can dream it, you can build it.”
–Chris Thorn, senior manager, payments and risk, Southwest Airlines
What was making Thorn’s colleagues so jealous was the system’s “smart question” process which allows any supervisor in the company to enter a claim, while at the same time freeing those supervisors from being claims adjusters.
The Riskonnect platform asks questions that direct the claim to the appropriate category without the supervisor having to take on the burden of performing that triage.
“They love it because all of the redundant questions are gone,” Thorn said.
The added beauty of the system, Thorn said, is that allows carriers and TPAs to work right alongside the Southwest team in claims files while maintaining rock-solid cyber security.
“This has sped up the process,” Thorn said.
“Any time you can speed up the process, the more success you’re going to have when you make offers to settle claims,” he said.
Since that initial splash in claims management, the Riskonnect platform has gone on to become a rock star at Southwest in a number of other areas. And as Thorn suggests, the possibilities of the system are limited only by the user’s imagination.
With a little creativity and help from Riskonnect as needed, a risk manager can add on system capabilities without having to go on bended knee to his own information technology department.
In the area of insurance policy management, for example, the Riskonnect platform as built by Thorn now holds data on all property values and exposures that can in turn be downloaded for use by underwriters.
Every time Southwest buys a new airplane, the enterprise platform sends out a notice to the airlines insurance broker, who in turn notifies the 16 or 17 carriers that are on the hull program.
Again, in that “anything’s possible” vein, the system has the capability of notifying the carriers, directly, a tool Thorn said he’s flirting with.
“It is capable of doing that,” he said.
“We’re testing out this functionality before we turn on it loose directly to the insurance companies.”
In alignment with the platform’s muscle in documenting, storing and reporting liability and property exposures, the system monitors and reports on insurance carrier financial strength.
If a rating agency downgrades a Southwest program carrier’s financial strength, for example, the system “pings” Thorn and his colleagues.
“Not only will we know about it, but we will also know all programs, present and past that they participated on, what the open reserves are for those policy years and policies,” Thorn said.
“That gives us even more comfort that we have good, solid financial backing of the insurance policies that are protecting us,” Thorn said.
Like many of us, Chris Thorn didn’t set out to work in risk management and insurance. Thorn is a Certified Public Accountant, and it’s that background that allows him to take creative advantage of the Riskonnect platform’s malleability in yet another way.
With the help of the Riskonnect customer service team, Thorn added a function to the platform that allows him to calculate the cost of insurance policies on a monthly basis, enter them into a general ledger and send them over to his colleagues in accounting.
“It’s very robust on handling financial information, date information, or anything with that much granularity,” Thorn said.
The sky is the limit
Thorn and Southwest are only two years into their relationship with Riskonnect and there are a number of places Thorn thinks the platform can take him that have yet to be explored, but certainly will be.
“It’s basically a repository of anything that’s risk-related, it continues to grow,” Thorn said.
“This has sped up the process. Any time you can speed up the process, the more success you’re going to have when you make offers to settle claims.”
–Chris Thorn, senior manager, payments and risk, Southwest Airlines
Not only have Southwest’s safety and workers’ compensation managers joined Thorn in his work with Riskonnect, business continuity has come knocking as well.
Thorn met in July with members of Southwest Airline’s business continuity team, which has a whole host of concerns, ranging from pandemics to cyber-attacks that it needs help in documenting the exposures and resiliency options for.
That Enterprise Risk Management approach will in the future also involve the system’s capability to provide risk alerts, telling Thorn and his team for example, that a hurricane or fast moving wildfire is threatening one of the company’s facilities.
Supply chain resiliency and managing certificates of insurance for foreign vendors are other areas where Thorn and his team plan to put the Riskonnect platform to good use.
“That’s all stuff that’s being worked on by us,” Thorn said.
“They’ve given us the tools, but we’re trying to develop how we’re going to use it,” he said.