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Is your workers comp physician panel balanced?

The cascading impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have touched all corners of society, including the business world. Entities in manufacturing, distribution, health care, construction, retail, hospitality and more are all grappling with pandemic-related financial and staffing pressures.

Even in non-pandemic times, a business’ health can be impacted when workers are injured. Having a balanced workers’ compensation physician panel is crucial to getting employees back to work, but why, and how, should you go about re-examining the composition of your panel?

Why re-evaluate your panel?

Pennsylvania law allows employers to create a list of preferred health care providers where workers must seek treatment for the first 90 days following a workplace injury. Among other things, the law stipulates that panels must be geographically accessible with specialties appropriate for anticipated work-related medical problems.

Not having a well-rounded physician panel can slow recovery time and potentially lead to operational and financial issues. When a valued employee is absent, it places pressure on the employer and remaining workforce to keep things running, perhaps with temporary workers who may not be as productive. This well-intentioned dynamic can lead to loss of income, production, employee engagement and retention.

Common work injuries and how they occur

While work-related injuries can run the gamut from sprains and strains to critical, life-threatening injuries, most are musculoskeletal in nature. Generally, they are caused by a bodily reaction, over-exertion or repetitive motions commonly seen in manufacturing, construction, distribution and other physical jobs.

Employees who frequently bend, climb, crawl, reach and/or twist are more likely to experience these injuries. Symptoms of an injury can include pain, stiffness, muscle tightness, swelling, numbness or tingling.

Additionally, employees exposed to COVID-19 in their workplace may be eligible for workers’ compensation. For workers recovering post-COVID, physical rehabilitation can help them regain strength, improve breathing, reduce pain, optimize cognitive function and improve balance.

Physical medicine and rehabilitation’s role

Most workers’ compensation panels can benefit from the addition of a physiatrist. With their focus on restoring function and maximizing ability after accident or injury, these specialized physicians complement orthopedists and neurologists and help round out the full continuum of care.

Additionally, physiatrists can team with physical therapists to help prevent workplace injuries through on-site job analyses that identify work pattern risk factors. During the on-site analysis, the physical therapist considers questions such as:
• Is bending, straightening, gripping, holding or twisting involved?
• Is there excessive heat, cold or vibration?
• Is there a fixed or constrained body position or continual repetition?
• How much force is placed on small body parts, such as the hand or wrist?
• Does the pace of the job allow for sufficient recovery?

A thorough analysis can identify the most frequent — and costly — injuries in order to address them faster. This information can be provided to treating physicians to ensure proper care and fewer missed work days.

Coordinated communication is key

When considering new providers for your panel, it’s crucial to select those who offer an integrated team approach. This model provides close communication between case managers, physicians and physical, occupational and speech therapists to improve outcomes for your injured workers and provide updates along the way.

Without proper care-team communication, employees could be out of work for longer, impacting your bottom line.

FCEs and work conditioning

Ensuring your panel has access to medical staff who can administer functional capacity evaluations (FCEs) and work conditioning is another important consideration. FCEs can determine whether a worker is able to return to a pre-injury position or shift to another role to minimize days missed.

Work conditioning provides exercises to physically prepare workers for the job at hand. Work conditioning helps prevent injuries by focusing on endurance and strength tailored to that specific job role. Additionally, other physician services such as independent medical exams can help validate and certify patients’ existing conditions for potential need of long-term utilization of worker’s compensation.

Having a partner with the expertise and skill to get your employees back to work quickly and prevent injury is key to ensuring your business runs as smoothly as possible through the pandemic — and beyond.

Sandeep Singh, MD, is senior vice president, medical affairs, and chief medical officer at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network in Allentown. For more information about workers’ compensation physician panels and occupational health programs, such as Good Shepherd at Work, call 1-888-44-REHAB.

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