The South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Education Association’s Annual Medical Seminar just concluded yesterday in Greenville, SC. It was held on March 8th and 9th, with the theme being “Road to Recovery.” They had several doctors speak on Sunday, with two of them focused primarily on improving care through better communication and understanding with injured workers. One session was called, “Communicating with the Injured Worker,” and another was “The Injured Worker and Perceived Injustice.” Both were excellent sessions, and the physicians should be commended for their willingness to address the shortcomings of their profession when it comes to dealing with injured workers.

However, there was a consistent theme with both, and it related to frequent comparisons of workers’ comp patients with their “normal patients.” They even discussed the importance of trying to “normalize” workers’ comp patients within their practices. I don’t criticize these physicians for the references, as this probably reflects normal vernacular for their industry. But I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why can’t our injured workers be normal, too? 

The answer, of course, lies with the complex legal machine that oversees and manages the medical care for our injured employees. After all, workers’ compensation is a legislated regulatory system that just happens to provide medical care as one of its functions. It is an increasingly important function for the industry, but it is just one function, nonetheless.  

Doctors who accept workers’ comp patients must accept the additional paperwork that automatically comes with their care. Physicians also must grapple at times with less than motivated patients, as well as increased anger over perceived injustices regarding the situation they are in. Those doctors in states which have employer directed care, such as South Carolina, see amplified emotions on that front. 

Apparently, just because I am a believer in employer directed care, it doesn’t mean everyone is. Especially those who are unhappy with their situation to begin with.

The conversation about normalizing care for injured workers is an important one to have. If we could streamline the process of care, it would reduce numerous friction points that are experienced today. Those friction points, of course, are mostly related to the legal umbrella under which care is currently provided. In litigated cases, open communication that could speed treatment and improve outcome is severely curtailed. Unlike those cases under general health, doctors treating under workers’ comp must repeatedly provide the same data to multiple (and often opposing) parties. Critical care decisions can’t be made without lengthy debate, depositions and delays.  

No, there is nothing normal about the system we’ve created. 

To fix this issue, workers’ compensation must become, first and foremost, a medical provision system focused on workers’ recovery. We need to concentrate on prompt and effective care; providing services that do not become mired in the quagmire of regulatory oversight. That change won’t come without a greater shift in our culture; one that first and foremost champions transparency and urgency in communications surrounding medical care. In the current legislated design of workers’ comp, it is not possible. But in the world of Workers’ Recovery, a concept championed here for over 8 years, it would be an integral part of the plan. 

Until that time comes to pass, however, we will be left with a strictly regulated medical system that is throttled by legislative and judicial oversight. That means with continued complex care, administrative demands and delayed treatments, our workers’ compensation patients may never be considered normal. 

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