Fast Return to Work Best for Injured Workers

Safe, early return-to-work programs are in the best interest of\r\npatients, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

A U.S. physicians group is supporting the notion of what some experts have been saying for years -- returning to work as soon as possible results in many benefits to the worker.

"Safe, early return-to-work programs are in the best interest of patients," the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons noted in a statement.

Reduced costs to employers also follows, through cuts in disability payments, medical costs, absence from work and insurance premiums, according to the group.

After a yearlong analysis, researchers found that those who stay out of work longer suffer more emotionally and find it harder to get future employment compared with those who go back to work early.

"Patients with extended disability often become depressed and show decreased motivation, and their medical outcomes are usually worse than those of patients who participate in early-return-to-work programs," Dr. J. Mark Melhorn, an orthopaedic surgeon at The Hand Center in Wichita, Kan., said in the October issue of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.

But under the current Workers'' Compensation and Social Security systems, disabled workers are actually discouraged from going back to work, according to Melhorn.

"To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must prove that he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful employment because of a medical impairment that is anticipated to continue for at least 12 months," noted Melhorn.

On the other hand, to be eligible for retraining -- in the event that the injury, like losing a limb, prohibits a person from going back to their specific duties -- the claimant must demonstrate both the potential for work and that retraining would be beneficial, Melhorn explained.

This practice can ultimately prove counterproductive, even emotionally detrimental to the injured worker.

Melhorn believes that both physicians and policy makers need to address the issue and make changes in the current way injured workers are treated.

"Physicians need to communicate the fact that the sooner people can get back to work, in whatever capacity, the better off they will be both emotionally and physically. They also need to make insurers and employers understand this," said Melhorn.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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