The Brain Injury Association reminds us that March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, so it was timely to see that our colleague Peter Rousmaniere has an important piece on brain injury recovery in the current issue of Risk Management magazine: Gray Matters: The Employer's Role in Brain Injury Recovery. It is important for two reasons: it sheds light and hope on the issue of traumatic brain injuries and the improved prospects for recovery, including return to work; and it serves as an illustration of some important differences between workers compensation and group health
The article notes that each year, 50,000 Americans die of a traumatic brain injury and 235,000 are hospitalized. There really aren't good statistics to tell us the prevalence of work-related brain injuries. Although there are better statistics available for what Rousmaniere calls "the signature wound of today's wars," many think that the estimate of 320,000 war-related traumatic brain injuries may be on the low side.
The good news, as Rousmaniere documents with examples, is that with proper medical care there have been great advances for a type of injury that was once written off as lost cause: "In the past, many adults with work-related traumatic brain injury were simply warehoused. But with advances in treatment and care strategies, including an employer that is ready and willing to help in gradual return to work, many survivors of severe brain injury can regain most of their former way of life."
Part of the challenge is early identification, rapid response, and aggressive treatment early in the injury, and aggressive recovery goals. Patients who are treated in the workers comp system, where care is often managed and coordinated and where insurers and employers aggressively advocate for recovery and return to work, often have an advantage over those patients treated under group health. With workers compensation, employers/insurers have financial responsibility for the life of a claim and, therefore, more incentive to work towards maximum recovery. Rousmaniere cites a case manager who says, "You have a workers compensation brain injured patient who is in the same hospital room as a nonworkers compensation patient, and the difference in resources is like night and day."
Rousmaniere cites examples of successes, along with best practices that contributed to those successes - including the important role that the employer can play in maximizing recovery, some of the challenges that occur, and some of the best practices:
As with all successful brain injury recoveries, job coaching is a critical phase that demands employer participation. Rehab counselors often make the trip with the worker back to her or his workplace. Memory failure, a signature feature of brain injury, is sometimes best treated, in part, at the physical site of the employer. So for several months, the vocational specialist helps the worker find ways to organize the day, reinforce memory and work with others. In this way, the patient's prospects for recovery are greatly improved.
Department of Defense embarks on more aggressive brain injury screening program
Rousmaniere discusses the prevalence of war-related TBI and some of the promising medical advances. He cites the recovery of reporter Bob Woodruff, perhaps one of the cases that we are all most familiar with due to the news coverage. After returning to his job as a reporter, Woodruff became an advocate for our soldiers in the field, developing a ReMIND, a foundation to provide resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families.
In speaking of his own recovery, Woodruff praised the quality of the care and support that he received, but saw with dismay that such treatment and recovery resources were not always available to service members with similar injuries. He saw the military culture as often stigmatizing or impeding screenings, and treatment options being limited once a vet returned home. That's why the Department of Defense's recent policy announcement is such welcome news: head-injury evaluations will be mandatory for all troops who suffer possible concussions. Moving to an incident-based response is a significant change from prior protocol, which depended on service members to self-identify with a complaint. The weakness in this approach is that service members are highly mission-focused and can shrug off complaints that can later prove to be serious problems.
America's Heroes at Work is a U.S. Department of Labor project that addresses the employment challenges of returning service members living with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The resources and links pages are particularly helpful - and a good resource for employers who are working with either vets or non-vets who are recovering from TBIs.