W.C.R.P. Rule 17 contains the Medical Treatment Guidelines promulgated by the Division of Workers’ Compensation. Several corresponding exhibits discuss the applicable medical criteria regarding injuries to different body parts and recommended treatment. Exhibit 5 addresses cumulative trauma disorders and the causation matrices involved in guiding physicians to assess whether an occupational disease may be work related. The Division has proposed updates to the matrices to specifically address certain scenarios facing injured workers and the applicable statutes under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Also, there have been additional journals, studies, and treatises better addressing the anatomy behind some of the cumulative trauma disorders and causation. The following will help outline some of the updates to the Guidelines proposed by the Division.
The current version of the cumulative trauma Medical Treatment Guidelines were revised on September 16, 2010 and became effective on October 30, 2010. These Guidelines helped provide a framework to better address causation and clarified primary and secondary risk factors associated with some of the disorders. Physicians could now have a somewhat clear roadmap to address primary and secondary work factors in the workplace and narrow down whether an injured workers’ alleged condition was causally related to their job duties. Among the issues that were clarified were tasks such as keyboarding, mousing, the use of hand tools, and the repetitive task cycles and durations of each of activities in which an injured worker may be exposed to in the workplace.
When assessing causation, the Division’s Guidelines indicate the following:
Cumulative trauma related conditions (CTC) of the upper extremity comprise a heterogeneous group of diagnoses which include numerous specific clinical entities including disorders of the muscles, tendons and tendon sheaths, nerves, joints and neurovascular structures. The terms “cumulative trauma disorder”, “repetitive motion syndrome”, “repetitive strain injury”, “myofascial pain” and other similar nomenclatures are umbrella terms that are not acceptable, specific diagnoses. The health care provider must provide specific diagnoses in order to appropriately educate, evaluate, and treat the patient. Examples include: de Quervain’s disease, cubital tunnel syndrome, and lateral/medial epicondylitis (epicondylalgia).
Many patients present with more than one diagnosis, which requires a thorough upper extremity and cervical evaluation by the health care provider. Furthermore, there must be a causal relationship between work activities and the diagnosis (See, Section D.3 Initial Diagnostic Procedures, Medical Causation Assessment). The mere presence of a diagnosis that may be associated with cumulative trauma does not presume work-relatedness unless the appropriate work exposure is present. Mechanisms of injury for the development of cumulative trauma related conditions have been controversial. However, repetitive awkward posture, force, vibration, cold exposure, and combinations thereof are generally accepted as occupational risk factors for the development of cumulative trauma related conditions. Evaluation of cumulative trauma related conditions require an integrated approach that may include ergonomics assessment, clinical assessment, past medical history and psychosocial evaluation on a case-by-case basis.
The normal working age population may often have non-specific pain complaints that require minimum treatment and may be considered part of the normal aging process. When pain continues or a complete history indicates a potential for other diagnoses, a medical workup may be necessary to screen for other diseases. However, in cases where there is no specific diagnosis and corresponding work related etiology, the work-up should generally be performed outside of the workers’ compensation system.
When applying the algorithm in Exhibit 5, the first step requires the physician to establish the diagnosis for the patient. Once completed, the second step requires the assessing physician to obtain the injured workers’ job duties and clearly define the specific tasks involved. The physician may require a jobsite evaluation to determine each task. The third step focusses on each specific job duty and whether it classifies as a primary or secondary risk factor. Primary and secondary risk factors both involve measuring force and repetition over different periods of time.
Currently, if neither a primary or secondary risk factor are present in the job duties of the injured worker, the condition is presumed to not be work related. If there are one or more identifiable primary risk factors, and the risk factor is physiologically related to the diagnosis, then the condition may be work related. If the primary risk factor is not physiologically related with no secondary risk factors, then again the condition is likely not work related. Once a physician arrives at identifying secondary risk factors, the fourth step in the algorithm goes a bit further and requires the physician to identify diagnostic-based risk factor tables to narrow down causation. There are several non-work related factors in assessing causation, such as the patients’ age, gender, whether the patient uses tobacco products, etc., that help in determining a non-work related cause.
Most of the algorithm and causation criteria remain unchanged in the Division’s latest proposals. Only certain portions have been revised to take into consideration particular nuances in the primary and secondary risk factors. One of the proposed changes to the Guidelines indicates that in the case of an aggravation or exacerbation of a pre-existing condition, the physician will now need to make an individualized causation decision based on the presence of other accompanying conditions. The physician must take each patient on a case by case basis.
Another proposed change is the increased amount of force but reduced task cycles and durations as primary risk factors. Force and repetition, coupled with duration, now require six hours of the use of two pounds of pinch force or ten pounds hand force 3 times or more per minute. The secondary risk factors have been reduced from 4 hours to 3 with the same two pounds of pinch force or ten pounds of hand force 3 times or more per minute. The physicians will have to apply the same steps in the algorithm to reach their conclusions; however, the specific criteria for primary and secondary risk factors have been updated based on the latest studies and literature. These are not the only changes to the Guidelines. Certain other updates have been made depending on the specific primary or secondary risk factor being addressed, (i.e. awkward posture, computer work, the use of handheld vibratory power tools, and cold working environments).
When a claimant alleges a particular occupational disease in which Exhibit 5 of the Medical Treatment Guidelines will be applied to determine causation, it is best to seek an Independent Medical Examination with a physician knowledgeable in applying the causation matrix. As part of the investigation of the claim, the IME physician should also be provided with a specific job description or worksite evaluation to properly identify each of the job duties that the injured worker performs. Most treating physicians will only obtain direct knowledge of the injured workers’ job duties directly from the injured worker. This oftentimes provides a skewed perception of the specific job duties, which in turn skews the overall analysis by the physician. The treating physician may find a claim to be work related when it should not be if the algorithm was properly applied.
If the IME physician has the specific job description/ergonomics assessment, coupled with medical records to establish the proper diagnosis, the physician will be in a better position to properly apply the causation matrices and provide a solid framework for reaching a causation determination. The IME physicians’ report can then be sent to the treating physician to properly assess causation and provide treatment to the injured worker or, in some cases, prevent treatment from being provided to the injured worker when it is not work-related, thus saving on medical costs.
The proposed changes to Rule 17 are not yet in effect. These are proposed changes but no rule making hearing has been announced. We suggest checking the Division website periodically. Once the changes do go into effect, we will make an announcement and let you know what changes were approved.
For additional questions regarding updates to the Medical Treatment Guidelines or recommendations when confronted with a particular issue on causation, please contact the attorneys at Lee + Kinder LLC.