We have a communication issue in the workers’ compensation industry. It is a problem driven by a language barrier, an obstacle that prevents us from sharing information and improving outcomes. It is not a language issue as you would normally think of one, either. It is not English vs. Spanish, a different use of acronyms or even northern vs. southern regional inflections. No, this language problem is based in the binary realm. 

We interpret data differently, and all of our networks and computer systems speak a different dialect. That is hampering the things we can do as an industry.

We are not alone in this challenge. An article posted to the Work Comp Analysis Group by Denise Zoe Algire points out that the health industry in general is struggling with this issue. The article tells us that, despite $29.1 billion spent on electronic health records development over the last decade, only “11% of respondents to this year’s 25th annual Modern Healthcare Survey of Executive Opinions on Key Health Information Technology Issues said their organizations were able to routinely exchange electronic patient information with other providers across the country.” Interestingly, in that same survey, 28% of providers indicated that they did not see a great need to share health data on a national level. 

I am sure that it is true, that in most cases, local medicine remains local, and these providers just don’t seem to think it important to standardize for national access. But they are missing the greater point. That attitude, as in workers’ comp, is a primary contributor to continuing delays in finding a solution.

Developing the ability to share common information in the form of electronic health care records (read: data) at a national level will establish a “common language” that will facilitate all communication regarding health care records. It will enable greater information distribution locally and regionally, where that ability will be far more important on a day to day basis. That is the point those 28% of providers are missing.

It is the same for those of us in the workers’ compensation sector. I am traveling to Myrtle Beach, SC today to attend the IAIABC Spring Forum. One of the committees I serve on for that organization is the Research & Standards Committee (RSC). The RSC is comprised of some very smart people (present company excepted) who for years have toiled to try and hammer about a dozen data points from all 50 states into a common, understandable national database. To complicate that effort, IAIABC is an international organization, so there is a healthy dose of Canadian, German and Australian data swirling around the group as well. In fact, it is telling to note that one of the very first topics at the very first IAIABC gathering 100 years ago was – you guessed it – statistics. 

Maybe by the end of its second 100 years the group will have everyone singing the same song.

The Chair of this committee is Mike Manley, Research Coordinator at Oregon DCBS and co-author of the Oregon Study. For some reason Mikes’ email to me always reads last name first, so it appears to come from Manley, Mike. I refer to him as “Manly Mike, Statistical Studmuffin of the RSC”. Mike has patiently guided recent efforts at surveying states about what data they collect, as well as early surveys to determine what claims data may be available on a broader scale. Even with a very limited set of rudimentary data elements, it has proven quite the challenge. Some states don’t track the data requested, and others don’t track or interpret it in a manner consistent with their neighbors. The downside to this is that we continually struggle to draw a true national picture of where we are as an industry. And the data the committee is dealing with is the most basic of claim statistics. As you draw farther down the claims process, the private health and claim data becomes even more disparate and difficult to reconcile. It is going to take more than a statistical studmuffin and a rag tag band of volunteers to hammer that info into a common understandable core.

They say that to understand where you are going you must first understand where you’ve been. Having a common language at the binary level, as well as a consistent interpretation of what goes into that digital stew will help us guide better results in the future. To that end, the work that the RSC is doing to standardize the most basic of data elements is foundational to a greater common language. We have to gain that in workers’ comp. It will be a herculean effort, but one that will certainly be worth it.

That should be easy for everyone to understand.


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