Needs of aging workforce may demand new health care strategies
The report, The Aging Workforce: The Role of Medical Professionals in Helping Older Workers and Workers with Disabilities to Stay at Work or Return to Work and Remain Employed, followed a recent roundtable among stakeholders gathered at Rutgers University. They issued a series of recommendations they believe could better protect older workers and their companies.
"If doctors are treating patients and not returning them to work and not maximizing their functional capacity, then they are in fact doing those patients great, often irreparable harm," the report cautioned. "Medical school and residency training programs, current physicians, employers, and other partners in the broader system all need to understand and promote the SAW/RTW process and the concept of work disability prevention, including accommodations that can maximize an individual's functional capacity both at work and at home."
The problem. The American workforce has been in a slow process of change as aging baby boomers increase the ranks of the 55 and older age group disproportionately to the 25 to 54 age group. This presents challenges for employers because work limiting disabilities are more likely to occur as workers age.
For example, the report from the National Technical Assistance and Research Leadership Center said that applications for Social Security disability income hit historically high levels, reaching more than 2.9 million in 2010. The NTAR Leadership Center, a workforce development collaboration housed at Rutgers University, noted that the biggest jumps in SSDI claimants are tied to aging baby boomers.
Having older workers leave the workforce temporarily for disability-related reasons presents challenges that are felt across the economy as workers 55 and older as well as those with disabilities have the greatest difficulty reconnecting to the labor market, according to the report.
According to the report, preventing disability and keeping people connected to work should be goals of the health care profession.
Never lose time.
Early intervention is "the key to preventing prolonged absence," the report noted, especially when it keeps workers from having to leave the workforce at all. People who "never lose time from work have better outcomes than those who do. The longer they are away from work, the less likely they will ever return."
According to statistics, the odds of returning to work drop every day an individual does not go to work. "The odds for returning to full-time employment drop to 50/50 by the time six months of absence has occurred," according to the report.
The report also noted that being out of work poses health challenges in itself.
"Unemployment and worklessness have been shown to increase the risks of poverty, social isolation, addiction, crime, marital and family breakdown, multigenerational dysfunction, ill health, injuries, and early death," it explained. "Worklessness is a poor health care outcome."
Examples. Urging that "generally speaking, working is good for health, and especially mental health," the report noted successful examples of efforts to improve stay-at-work and return-to-work outcomes, both in the U.S. and abroad.
The Arizona Work Disability Prevention Association, for example, has made efforts to educate physicians about strategies to prevent needless work disability.
In the Netherlands, the government recently overhauled the national social security system and made changes to sick leave and permanent and temporary disability provisions. These changes increased employer responsibility for helping workers return to work.
The Dutch government also began using a survey instrument to help predict risk factors that could affect the ability of workers to stay healthy and continue working. A big data type of project, the survey is geared toward devising appropriate interventions for better health outcomes.
Based on examples like these, the report recommended that physicians take courses in disability prevention for continuing education credit, and medical schools train doctors in the prevention of work disability. It also opined that health care providers need to become knowledgeable about workers' comp, the Family and Medical Leave Act, short-term disability, and vocational rehabilitation.
Additionally, the report recommended that medical professionals should "develop an understanding of accommodations and assistive technology devices that enable patients with developing impairments or health-related conditions to remain functional at work and independent outside work." Efforts like these, the report explained, would be part of an effort to "first do no harm" when it comes to work disability.
By Frank Ferreri, Legal Editor
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
June 3, 2013
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