As our country fights a battle against opioid painkillers, focus is turning to what has led to the crisis itself: chronic pain. The American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA) defines chronic pain as “ongoing or recurrent pain that lasts beyond the usual healing time, more than three to six months, and adversely affects the individual’s well-being.”
The American Academy of Pain Medicine suggests that the number of Americans that live with chronic pain could be as high as 100 million. This is more than those living with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, combined. What’s more, a study by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) concluded that 1 in 6 America's workers live with chronic pain.
These workers are increasingly turning to opioid analgesics to ease their pain. With the rising number of opioid addictions and deaths, it is important for workers' compensation professionals to be actively involved with their clients.
Paying the cost of pain relief
Along with the chance of opioid dependence, studies are now showing that the prolonged use of opioid painkillers actually impacts workers' compensation claims. Opioid use after an accident can increase the length of time to complete a claim and it can increase the cost associated with workers' comp claims.
Additionally, opioid use can increase the duration of time a person is injured and can make workers less functional after they heal.
Opioids and workers' compensation claims
One issue with workplace injuries is the prevalence of occupational medicine. It is among the smaller medical specialties; therefore, primary care physicians are typically who treat workers' comp claimants. In reality, people injured on the job should be treated by specialists.
Another connection between workers' compensation and opioid dependency is the amount of time that physicians spend with workers' comp patients. Physicians spend significantly less time with those sent to comply with a workers' comp claim than they do their Group Health patients.
By physicians spending less time with workers' comp patients, they have less time to ensure that the injured worker fully understands the treatment(s) they have available to them, which often includes alternatives to opioid painkillers.
Additionally, injured patients may also not have the time to become educated on the risks associated with opioid use.
How certified workers' compensation professionals can help
Here are 5 ways that workers' compensation claims professionals and lawyers can help clients better manage prescription opioid use:
1. Continuous monitoring
An injured worker should be monitored throughout the entirety of their claim. Effective communication between the worker’s physician and the claims department of the insurance company is the first line of defense. Studies have shown that the better the lines of communication are, the better likelihood the claim will be successful—and that includes the injured worker healing successfully.
2. An environment that fosters positive prescribing practices
We need better regulations for prescriptions. Additionally, injured workers should have proper education on drug formulas and treatment guidelines. Another way to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions in a workers' comp case is for early engagement between employer, treating physician and the injured employee.
3. Identification of risk factors
The key to combating prescription opioid misuse is physicians being able to recognize who is the most at risk. Together, doctors, prescribers and even workers’ compensation attorneys should monitor the injured worker for these risk factors and help the worker take steps to avoid addition.
4. Full health care literacy
Chronic pain treatment isn't one-size-fits-all. Many injuries have alternative pain management solutions that allow the injured worker to avoid opioid use. These plans can include acupuncture, physical therapy, yoga and cognitive behavior therapy. By helping an injured worker secure workers’ compensation benefits for these alternative treatments, a lawyer can be a key player in avoiding opioid addiction.
5. A skilled pain management team
Pain management shouldn't be handled by the injured worker alone. They need the assistance of their physician, workers' comp claim professional, their employer, nurses on their case, and their family members. It takes a team to lead to a successful recovery.
Being injured while on the job is never a good situation. It takes time to recover from a serious work-related injury—physically, emotionally and monetarily. An opioid addiction makes recovery significantly more difficult. While many parts of an injured worker’s treatment plan is out of the hands of a workers’ compensation attorney, there are some ways we can help facilitate a full recovery from chronic pain while avoiding the pitfalls of addiction.