This past week, I was in Boston at two conferences for researchers in workers’ compensation. Some of you might think this can’t possibly be of interest to what you do so before you click off to some other blog, let me assure you that research is important to every workers’ compensation policy analyst, disability management practitioner, and prevention professional.
You make decisions. You give advice and direction. As a professional in any capacity you rely on a body of knowledge — one that is hopefully evidence based and validated by research.
Let me give you an example. In this business, we all know about back injuries. Think about an acute low back claim of less than six weeks. What factors would predict the likelihood and timing of a return-to-work? Depression? Lifestyle? Education? This may be your intuition, and designing your policies or programs around this intuition may seem to be the right thing to do but the research tells a different story. There is strong evidence that none of these factors have any effect on duration on acute back claims.
What factors are predictive of the likelihood and timing of return-to-work? The Manitoba WCB's Workplace Research and Innovation Program wanted to know, and provided a grant to the Institute for Work and Health to conduct a detailed "systematic review" of the literature on this topic. The systematic review found strong evidence for factors such as:
- The worker's recovery expectations (e.g., their predictions about how likely it is they will return to work and/or how long it will be before they are able to return)
The availability of modified work
Interactions with healthcare providers
This is powerful information for the design of programs, communication with employers and providing guidance to workers and their healthcare providers. Applied appropriately, the findings can reduce duration and improve outcomes for workers and employers. Without the research papers that were reviewed, without the skill and discipline of other researchers who conducted the review, and without the funding of the Manitoba WCB Research and Innovation Program, these findings would not be available for us.
Another study examined temporary disability duration and the impact of rising unemployment. Looking at the unemployment rates by county in 16 U.S. states, the Workers' Compensation Research Institute study found temporary disability duration, (on WC claims of greater than seven days time loss and at 24 months post injury), rose from 17 to nearly 20 weeks as unemployment rose from 5 percent to 10 percent. This finding makes sense and quantifies the magnitude of the increase. The finding is of critical importance in explaining and quantifying the effect of the economic climate, (as epitomized by rising unemployment rates), in many jurisdictions.
Research has tremendous value. The publication of peer-reviewed research is almost free to the user — but it also has a cost. Funding research, systematic reviews, and knowledge transfer is not cheap. Nor is it trivial to attract and retain academics willing to study, develop their understandings, and devote their careers to workers’ compensation and prevention research. Without many people and agencies willing to sponsor research and researchers, most of us would be “free riders” on the coattails of the few that do.
The research reported on at the conferences I attended is important. Without a sustaining and growing body of research-based knowledge, we not only risk the integrity of our professions but more importantly, we risk doing the wrong thing for those we serve.