Study Supports Benefits of Evidence-Based Medicine
Workers’ comp claims that follow evidence-based medicine guidelines have shorter durations and lower medical costs, according to a new study. The research suggests significantly improved outcomes and cost savings can result when medical providers follow recommendations based on peer-reviewed evidence in workers’ compensation treatment guidelines.
While nearly all jurisdictions either have or are considering the adoption of evidence-based medicine guidelines in their workers’ comp systems, there is almost no published scientific evidence confirming their efficacy or mechanism for improvements. But a team from a workers’ comp insurance carrier and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have produced what they believe is the first scientific proof that consistently applied treatment guidelines are effective in treating injured workers.
“We set out to prove or disprove empirically that adherence to EBM guidelines was impactful,” said Jack Tower, senior data scientist at the Accident Fund Holdings Medical Center of Excellence. “We were able to do that.”
The researchers developed a methodology to measure adherence to the Official Disability Guidelines from the Work Loss Data Institute and used an adherence score to compare the outcomes for different case mix adjusted claims populations. They found that claims in which there was at least a 50 percent adherence to the guidelines had 13.2 percent shorter durations and 37.9 percent lower medical costs.
“That kind of gives a strong impetus to implement new medical management strategies based on the results,” Tower said. “Carriers and the work comp industry could benefit from developing programs that embrace the concepts behind EBM.”
The idea of evidence-based medicine is to improve the medical decision-making process by emphasizing the use of scientific research and medical consensus. While it has been around for the last several decades, evidence-based medicine has only recently become widespread in the workers’ comp system.
“The application of evidence-based medicine in workers’ comp is much different from the application of evidence-based medicine in the group health world,” said Jeffrey Austin White, director of Innovation for Accident Fund. “In group health the evidence-based medicine guidelines have been scrutinized by the medical professionals as they are limited in scope and typically used to control cost in a hospital setting by limiting reimbursement rates.”
“This study provides a mechanism for evaluating an EBM guideline and can be used to identify how they might be improved in the future.” — Jeffrey Austin White, director of innovation, Accident Fund Holdings
However, White argues that the workers’ compensation guidelines are much more focused and comprehensive. “Evidence-based medicine [in workers’ comp] encompasses tens of millions of claims having similar incoming diagnoses. The guidelines provide outcome expectations at the diagnosis and treatment level for the majority of workplace injuries,” White explained. “When the diagnosis is made, the evidence-based medicine guidelines define how often a treatment is administered, along with the expected cost and time off from work. It’s a much different way to apply evidence-based medicine than is typically done in the group health setting.”
In addition to the Official Disability Guidelines, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine has also created evidence-based medicine guidelines. A majority of states have adopted or are considering adopting either of the two national guidelines, a combination of the two, or homegrown guidelines that are state-specific to improve consensus around the definition of “necessary and appropriate” treatments for injured workers.
But “there’s a paucity of research around evidence-based medicine and best practice protocols,” said Dr. Dan Hunt, corporate medical director of Accident Fund. “We wanted to use our research to come up with hard facts — things that are true — to help improve the care for injured workers whether it’s Official Disability Guidelines, ACOEM, or another to say ‘here’s objective research that shows these guidelines work.’”
The researchers wanted to show whether and to what extent evidence-based medicine works specifically in the workers’ comp population. “There is a lot of literature that suggests the correct ways to do things medically but many times they are not really proven from an outcomes point of view,” said Dr. Edward Bernacki, professor of medicine and director of the division of occupational medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The medical care may be better, but does it really affect costs and return to work?”
Previous research from Accident Fund in conjunction with Johns Hopkins has highlighted some of the reasons for the increasing use of opioids in the workers’ comp system. One study, for example showed the use of opioids was an independent predictor of catastrophic claims costs while another identified physician dispensing as a driver of the increased use and costs.
“We found that physicians were contributing to [the opioid problem] and asked ourselves ‘Why?’ Our hypothesis was that providers were not using guidelines to help make administration decisions,” White said. “We thought by developing an algorithm or methodology to analyze a historical cohort of claims that we might be able to see a difference in outcomes between case mix adjusted claims that had various degrees of compliance with the guidelines.”
The idea of the study was to develop a technique for testing the safety and efficacy of an evidence-based medicine guideline rather than to drive public policy decisions on treatment practices.
It’s one of those situations where everyone wins — the employee returns to work and medical costs are constrained. To me, it’s a win-win.” — Dr. Edward Bernacki, professor of medicine and director of the division of occupational medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
“If a state mandates the use of evidence-based medicine guidelines for the treatment of injured workers we are legally obligated to use them. If there are no mandated legislative guidelines, we are inclined to promote prospective guidelines that have been shown to reduce system costs and positively impact injured worker outcomes,” White said. “It’s important for us to know which guidelines work and why. This study provides a mechanism for evaluating an EBM guideline and can be used to identify how they might be improved in the future.”
Measuring Evidence-Based Medicine
The team developed two separate analytical techniques; one to stratify each claim for medical complexity and another to determine the adherence to the Official Disability Guidelines. The claims were divided into 10 levels of medical complexity and scored based on adherence.
“The number one challenge when doing claims research is being able to group claims into like claims,” White explained. “You don’t want to compare a claim with a broken finger to a claim with head trauma.”
The group started with non-catastrophic, indemnity claims that spanned the years 2008 to 2012 of the insurer’s data. They considered open and closed claims using a two-year development cutoff.
The researchers developed a compliance score to determine adherence to the Official Disability Guidelines. The score assigns a quantitative value to the claim indicating approximately how many of the treatments were consistent with the recommendations from the guidelines.
They case mix adjusted the claims and compared those with greater than a 50 percent adherence to evidence-based medicine guidelines to those with less than 50 percent adherence for the differences in claim durations and medical costs incurred. Using data from Official Disability Guidelines, the researchers identified the adherence of every procedure given a specific diagnosis for each claim based on the following four codes:
Green flags in the Official Disability Guidelines indicate the procedure is recommended based on prevalence, medical consensus, and historical claim outcomes.
Yellow flags indicate the procedure is a common treatment for that diagnosis and should be allowed on a limited basis with a restriction on the number of times it should be performed.
Red flags denote low prevalence in workers’ comp and that the treatment is not necessarily indicated based on current scientific research, i.e., recommendation is to review.
Black flags indicate inappropriate care and possibly denial of service.
“For every diagnosis and treatment, we label it with the corresponding colors; then we determine an adherence score at the claim level,” White said. “For a given claim, you can consider the cumulative number of green, yellow, red and black flags, and you can devise a score that indicates the level of compliance which can be compared against like claims.”
Based on the scores, the claims were separated. Those with mainly green and yellow flags, for example, were deemed as fairly compliant with the guidelines while those with many black flags were noncompliant.
“If you break the claims into two buckets, you can compare outcomes of the compliant group with the noncompliant group,” White said. “So for two broken finger injuries where one received compliant and the other noncompliant care, you can see how they differ in duration and medical cost.”
The average for all levels of medical complexity showed claims in the low compliance group had a 13.2 percent increase in claim duration and a 37.9 percent increase in medical costs compared to the high compliance group, the study found.
The numbers increased as the medical complexity of a claim increased. In looking at the top 10 percent of claims for medical complexity, there was a difference in claim duration of 18 percent and increased medical costs of 38 percent, between the low and high compliance groups.
The researchers also found there were more black flag procedures in the low compliance group — 3.5 times the number in the high compliance group.
“I think our research in essence provides evidence that if you do employ these guidelines the outcomes are better,” Johns Hopkins’ Bernacki said. “This is systematically over time that people return to work faster, for the insurers costs are a little lower, and for folks employing them the premium costs will be lower, so the cost of doing business will be lower. I think it’s one of those situations where everyone wins — the employee returns to work and medical costs are constrained. To me, it’s a win-win.”
“It’s awfully exciting to be a part of a landmark study. No one else has done this before,” Hunt said. “The ability to develop an adherence process for claims management will have a lot of applications across the whole health care spectrum.”
Hunt, who called the study a “gargantuan undertaking,” hopes it will lead to additional studies that drill down more into the findings. “Age, jurisdictional differences — there are a whole host of really interesting things we can do now,” he said. “You’re going to see additional papers once this method is established.”
For now, the authors hope the findings will help spur action in states that currently do not use evidence-based medicine guidelines in their workers’ comp systems. With properly worded legislation and effective dispute resolution processes in place, evidence-based medicine guidelines should offer better outcomes for everyone.
They hope workers’ comp practitioners will begin using the methodology they’ve created to further refine evidence-based medicine guidelines. In fact, they have developed a 10-step process for companies to replicate the results.
“It’s like a recipe. With evidence-based medicine guidelines, you can quantify exactly how much of each ingredient you put in and therefore enhance your ability to refine, measure, and improve your results over time. At least that is what EBM tries to do,” White said. “It’s a recipe that applies to, say 80 percent of the population most of the time. The recipe should reduce system costs and facilitate cooperation from both sides of the business — payers and providers alike.”
Cannabis Reimbursement Trend Grows
An insurer reimbursed workers’ compensation claimant Peter Mould for $4,600 of the $10,000 he has spent buying cannabis since obtaining a state medical marijuana program registration card nearly two years ago.
Mould said he expects reimbursement from American International Group for the remainder of $10,000, and payments for any future purchases of cannabis buds bought at a dispensary licensed under Connecticut’s 4-year-old medical marijuana program.
The Connecticut claimant’s case shares similarities with others across a few jurisdictions where insurers have reimbursed workers’ comp claimants for their purchases under state medical marijuana laws.
Those similarities include injured workers reportedly obtaining relief from chronic pain — a condition that torments sufferers and claims payers alike, often because it leads to the prescribing of dangerous opioid narcotics and the costly complications they cause.
Mould, 43, believes he is saving the worker’s comp insurer thousands of dollars for the costs normally driven by opioids that doctors prescribed for him following a 2011 workplace injury. The injury led to two cervical spine surgeries and “countless hours of physical therapy” that didn’t eliminate his pain and back spasms, Mould said.
“The medical cannabis absolutely helps,” said Mould who injured his neck by pulling up glued-down carpet while employed at a restoration company. “I don’t take narcotics anymore because of medical cannabis.”
“Reimbursement, as opposed to direct pay, is a significant legal distinction that I think somewhat insulates the carrier or self-insured employer,” — Paul H. Sighinolfi, executive director and chair, Maine Workers’ Compensation Board
Cases of workers’ comp insurers paying for marijuana across the country likely remain few and isolated to states like Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico.
But Mould’s attorney, George H. Romania of the Law Office of George H. Romania LLC in Hamden, Conn., expects many more such claims. Growing recognition of the harms caused by treating pain sufferers with opioids will drive more claimants to seek cannabis, he said.
Some state medical marijuana laws protect insurers from having to pay for the drug. But where the laws allow, claimants have found judges or hearing administrators supporting their requests for reimbursements.
In Maine, for example, administrative law judges have heard five cases with workers’ comp claimants requesting payment for cannabis purchased under the state’s medical marijuana program, said Paul H. Sighinolfi, executive director and chair of Maine’s Workers’ Compensation Board.
Three of those cases resulted in the judges ordering insurers to reimburse claimants for their purchases. All three cases involved patients suffering “intractable pain,” Sighinolfi said. Two of those decisions are under appeal.
The first case heard by Maine judges involved a worker who strained his back in 1989 while lifting an industrial garage door. His employer paid for treatment at several prominent hospitals. The pain persisted and he was diagnosed as suffering from complex regional pain syndrome.
He eventually consumed between 120-140 milligrams of OxyContin daily. He also received Dilaudid, another opioid, for breakthrough pain and periodically received for morphine injections.
In a “last-ditch effort,” his physician agreed he should see a doctor known to certify patients to Maine’s medical marijuana program.
By the time of his hearing to consider whether he should be reimbursed for purchasing cannabis, he was not consuming any narcotics, said Sighinolfi, who interviewed the injured worker’s physician. Instead, the claimant found relief by vaping cannabis three or four times a day.
The cannabis strain he vapes has been bred to so that it does not contain the ingredient that typically produces a marijuana high when consumed.
“This is a very believable guy,” Sighinolfi said of the claimant.
As first occurred in New Mexico two years ago, when claims payers in other states have been ordered to fund cannabis, it hinges on reimbursing claimants for their medical marijuana purchases. Judges evidently believe that requiring reimbursement insulates claims payers from federal law prohibiting the purchase of marijuana.
“Reimbursement, as opposed to direct pay, is a significant legal distinction that I think somewhat insulates the carrier or self-insured employer,” Sighinolfi said.
But Trey Gillespie, assistant vice president, workers’ compensation, for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), disagrees. He argues that the reimbursement arrangements still force underwriters to violate federal law regulating financial services companies.
A few PCI members have voiced willingness to consider voluntarily reimbursing for medical marijuana, should studies show it indeed addresses chronic pain and can help eliminate opioid consumption.
But the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug currently hampers such research. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is now considering changing that status and is expected to announce soon whether it will do so.
“What is needed are high-quality studies on the effectiveness of marijuana in the treatment of the diseases for which it is authorized in various states, whether we are talking about glaucoma, or chronic pain,” Gillespie said.
Commercial Auto Warning: Emerging Frequency and Severity Trends Threaten Policyholders
The slow but steady climb out of the Great Recession means businesses can finally transition out of survival mode and set their sights on growth and expansion.
The construction, retail and energy sectors in particular are enjoying an influx of business — but getting back on their feet doesn’t come free of challenges.
Increasingly, expensive commercial auto losses hamper the upward trend. From 2012 to 2015, auto loss costs increased a cumulative 20 percent, according to the Insurance Services Office.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow,” said David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
For companies with transportation exposure, costly auto losses can hinder continued growth. Buyers who partner closely with their insurance brokers and carriers to understand these risks – and the consultative support and tools available to manage them – are better positioned to protect their employees, fleets, and businesses.
Liberty Mutual’s David Blessing discusses key challenges in the commercial auto market.
“Since the recession ended, commercial auto losses have challenged businesses trying to grow. As the economy improves and businesses expand, it means there are more vehicles on the road covering more miles. That is pushing up the frequency of auto accidents.”
–David Blessing, SVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for National Insurance Casualty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
More Accidents, More Dollars
Rising claims costs typically stem from either increased frequency or severity — but in the case of commercial auto, it’s both. This presents risk managers with the unique challenge of blunting a double-edged sword.
Cumulative miles driven in February, 2016, were up 5.6 percent compared to February, 2015, Blessing said. Unfortunately, inexperienced drivers are at the helm for a good portion of those miles.
A severe shortage of experienced commercial drivers — nearing 50,000 by the end of 2015, according to the American Trucking Association — means a limited pool to choose from. Drivers completing unfamiliar routes or lacking practice behind the wheel translate into more accidents, but companies facing intense competition for experienced drivers with good driving records may be tempted to let risk management best practices slip, like proper driver screening and training.
Distracted driving, whether it’s as a result of using a phone, eating, or reading directions, is another factor contributing to the number of accidents on the road. Recent findings from the National Safety Council indicate that as much as 27% of crashes involved drivers talking or texting on cell phones.
The factors driving increased frequency in the commercial auto market.
In addition to increased frequency, a variety of other factors are driving up claim severity, resulting in higher payments for both bodily injury and property damage.
Treating those injured in a commercial auto accident is more expensive than ever as medical costs rise at a faster rate than the overall Consumer Price Index.
“Medical inflation continues to go up by about three percent, whereas the core CPI is closer to two percent,” Blessing said.
Changing physical medicine fee schedules in some states also drive up commercial auto claim costs. California, for example, increased the cost of physical medicine by 38 percent over the past two years and will increase it by a total of 64 percent by the end of 2017.
And then there is the cost of repairing and replacing damaged vehicles.
“There are a lot of new vehicles on the road, and those cost more to repair and replace,” Blessing said. “In the last few years, heavy truck sales have increased at double digit rates — 15 percent in 2014, followed by an additional 11 percent in 2015.”
The impact is seen in the industry-wide combined ratio for commercial auto coverage, which per Conning, increased from 103 in 2014 to 105 for 2015, and is forecast to grow to nearly 110 by 2018.
None of these trends show signs of slowing or reversing, especially as the advent of driverless technology introduces its own risks and makes new vehicles all the more valuable. Now is the time to reign in auto exposure, before the cost of claims balloons even further.
The factors driving up commercial auto claims severity.
Data Opens Window to Driver Behavior
To better manage the total cost of commercial auto insurance, Blessing believes risk management should focus on the driver, not just the vehicle. In this journey, fleet telematics data plays a key role, unlocking insight on the driver behavior that contributes to accidents.
“Roughly half of large fleets have telematics built into their trucks,” Blessing said. “Traditionally, they are used to improve business performance by managing maintenance and routing to better control fuel costs. But we see opportunity there to improve driver performance, and so do risk managers.”
Liberty Mutual’s Managing Vital Driver Performance tool helps clients parse through data provided by telematics vendors and apply it toward cultivating safer driving habits.
“Risk managers can get overwhelmed with all of the data coming out of telematics. They may not know how to set the right parameters, or they get too many alerts from the provider,” Blessing said.
“We can help take that data and turn it into a concrete plan of action the customer can use to build a better risk management program by monitoring driver behavior, identifying the root causes of poor driving performance and developing training and other approaches to improve performance.”
Actions risk managers can take to better manage commercial auto frequency and severity trends.
Rather than focusing on the vehicle, the Managing Vital Driver Performance tool focuses on the driver, looking for indicators of aggressive driving that may lead to accidents, such as speeding, sharp turns and hard or sudden braking.
The tool helps a risk manager see if drivers consistently exhibit any of these behaviors, and take actions to improve driving performance before an accident happens. Liberty’s risk control consultants can also interview drivers to drill deeper into the data and find out what causes those behaviors in the first place.
Sometimes patterns of unsafe driving reveal issues at the management level.
“Our behavior-based program is also for supervisors and managers, not just drivers,” Blessing said. “This is where we help them set the tone and expectations with their drivers.”
For example, if data analysis and interviews reveal that fatigue factors into poor driving performance, management can identify ways to address that fatigue, including changing assigned work levels and requirements. Are drivers expected to make too many deliveries in a single shift, or are they required to interact with dispatch while driving?
“Management support of safety is so important, and work levels and expectations should be realistic,” Blessing said.
A Consultative Approach
In addition to its Managing Vital Driver Performance tool, Liberty’s team of risk control consultants helps commercial auto policyholders establish screening criteria for new drivers, creating a “driver scorecard” to reflect a potential new hire’s driving record, any Motor Vehicle Reports, years of experience, and familiarity with the type of vehicle that a company uses.
“Our whole approach is consultative,” Blessing said. “We probe and listen and try to understand a client’s strengths and challenges, and then make recommendations to help them establish the best practices they need.”
“With our approach and tools, we do something no one else in the industry does, which is perform the root cause analysis to help prevent accidents, better protecting a commercial auto policyholder’s employees and bottom line.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.