Washington Program Reduces Workplace Disabilities and Claim Costs

July 6, 2005
Nearly $6 million in workers' compensation insurance claim costs were saved in 1 year by a Department of Labor and Industries-funded program in Renton, Wash., that assists health-care providers in treating workers who were injured on the job.

Injured workers treated by physicians enrolled in the Center of Occupational Health & Education (COHE) at Valley Medical Center in Renton recovered more quickly, went on disability less frequently and averaged $585 in lower claim costs, according to a study released by the University of Washington.

The Renton program began enrolling doctors in 2002, serving as an educational and consulting resource for physicians in South King County who treat injured workers but who do not specialize in occupational health and medicine. A second program opened in Spokane 1 year later. Results from that center will be available next year.

The Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) established the two centers as sources of expertise in the treatment of back sprains, carpal tunnel syndrome, fractures and sprains. The centers emphasize prompt reporting of injuries; accurate diagnosis; improved communication among physicians, employers and workers; and timely and appropriate treatment.

"COHE patients were less likely to incur time-loss and also less likely to incur long-term disability," concluded the report. "These favorable patterns led to an estimated reduction in total costs of approximately $585 per claim. The COHE treated approximately 10,000 workers during the evaluation year. Thus, the aggregate reduction in costs associated with COHE operations would be on the order of $5.8 million."

The study of the Renton center was conducted by the UW's School of Public Health and Community Medicine under the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences in the Occupational Epidemiology and Health Outcomes Program. The study compared the outcomes of more than 42,000 workplace-injury claims filed in a year, measuring the duration of disability and the amount of money paid out in wage replacement and medical costs.

The Spokane and Renton centers are part of a pilot project to determine if using occupational medicine best practices results in injured workers recovering and getting back to work more quickly. As part of the program, participating providers enrolled in the COHE are paid additional money for such things as prompt reporting of injuries and providing timely advice to workers and their employers on work restrictions that will assist the recovery and prevent re-injury.

This spring, the state legislature recently approved an additional $805,000 to increase training and expand the number of doctors served. The Spokane Center for Occupational Health & Education, which now covers three Eastern Washington counties, will be expanded to encompass 16 counties east of the Cascade Mountains. The Renton program will be extended with a continued focus on improving communication among providers, employers and workers.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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