Finding new ways of helping injured workers return to jobs

May 26, 2014 by Bryan Alary
Doug Gross (right) and his UAlberta research team developed an interview-based test to ensure injured workers are ready to return to the job. The test is as effective as physical assessments, without the risk of painful flare-ups. Credit: Richard Siemens

A University of Alberta research team has designed a new approach to ensure injured workers are fit to return to their jobs, sparing them lengthy and painful tests that can pose risks of pain flare-ups.

U of A researchers designed a novel interview format to gauge when injured workers are physically able to resume their duties. During a , the interview approach proved just as effective as functional evaluations now used in Alberta that see workers perform tasks similar to their work duties—physical testing that is typically lengthy and can aggravate pain.

"One of the biggest problems clinicians face when treating injured workers is making the decision on when they're able to return to work without risk of further pain or reinjury," said Doug Gross, an associate professor of physical therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. "Functional testing is timely, expensive and often painful for workers. Our method gives clinicians another tool to get individuals back on track."

Gross has spent more than a decade studying the issue, focusing on musculoskeletal conditions. Instead of observing patients as they perform tasks such as lifting, walking or climbing stairs, he and colleague Alexander Assante, a program manager with Alberta Health Services' Community Accessible Rehabilitation, developed detailed questions focusing on a patient's injury history and physical condition, recent functional abilities, work demands and what they think they can handle physically.

"Most people have sense of what they can or can't do but are looking for expert advice. This format can be an interventional tool that helps them decide and feel comfortable with what they're capable doing," said Gross, whose research is affiliated with WCB-Alberta Millard Health, a provider of occupational rehabilitation and disability management services.

More than 400 workers with muscle, ligament, tendon and bone injuries participated in the trial. Half were chosen at random and tested using standard physical evaluations; the rest underwent interviews conducted by trained clinicians.

Researchers found no differences in patient outcomes between the physical tests—which can take up to eight hours and require a trip to a clinic—and the two-hour interview format, which, Gross says, can be done almost anywhere, potentially including phone or video calls. Distance interviews still need to be tested, he cautions, but theoretically they could benefit rural patients and those working in remote areas, including Alberta's oilpatch.

"That would be huge for an injured worker in Fort McMurray who otherwise would have to come to Edmonton."

Gross said his results have generated interest not only in Alberta, but also among academics in Australia, Europe and at WorkSafeBC, which helped fund the work. It's the type of research made possible by being at the U of A and having strong relationships in the community through WCB-Alberta Millard Health.

"This has the potential to do considerable good for patients, employers, insurance providers—and really the economy as a whole."

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not rated yet Jun 08, 2014
I am sure that "one day" this will have a postive impact on outcomes for return to work strategies, but on this day and in this country the AB WCB is 100% focused on paying ALL of their staff at the Millard and their Offices big BONUSES for kicking Seriously Injured Workers off of ANY kind of Rehabilitation treatments or recieving ANY benefits at all. Until this Corporate Culture that profits OFF of the PAIN And Suffering of Seriously Injured Workers is totally stripped down and rebuilt there will be NO substantial benefit of any University studies towards successful outcomes for Injured workers in Alberta. The WCB Alberta is much more focused on turning Seriously Injured Workers into armies of Homeless People who are absolutely gobsmacked at how to deal with such an abusive and combative BOGUS Rehabilitation Facility.
not rated yet Jun 08, 2014
I do not now have any intentions nor will I EVER have any intentions of returning to a BOGUS and fraudulently run rehabilitation facility, that puts Theats, Intimidation and Coercien at the TOP of their list of ways to treat a Seriously Injured Worker who has suffered a serious Trauma accident at work. Why would YOU? You do NOT get Theatened at a Hospital, or the Glenrose Rehabilitation? I am not empowered to go around threatening people, why is the Millard Health Center empowered by our government to use THREATS as a method of treating Seriously Injured Workers? When you find the answer to that question, call me on my cell. My phone number is on my Workers Compensation Blog

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