For workers with back injuries, doctor-patient communication -- especially advice on when the patient is ready to return to work -- has a significant impact on the length of disability time, according to a study that appears in the June Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Following a three-year review of 325 patients who had a low-back injury that resulted in lost work time, researchers were able to conclude that patients whose doctors used a proactive communication style were more likely to return to work within the first month after a back injury.
Proactive communication included giving the patient information on work restriction, job changes or behaviors necessary to heal the current injury and prevent future ones.
According to the study, however, the benefits of proactive communication disappeared once the patient injury and workload characteristics were taken into consideration, including the physical and psychosocial aspects of the work environment.
A stronger predictor was the doctor''s advice that the patient was ready to return to work. Patients who received such advice early on were about 60 percent more likely to return to work within the first month after an injury and less likely to go on disability for a prolonged period.
Although doctor-patient communication is believed to have an important impact on return to work after occupational injuries, few studies have addressed the issue. These results, however, suggest that a clear message from the doctor, telling patients specifically when they are ready to returtn to work is particularly important.
The researchers do emphasize that doctor-patient communication alone -- without ergonomic and organizational changes in the workplace -- is not enough to minimize low back injuries.
Occupational low back pain accounts for approximately one-third of all costs for occupational injuries in the United States, with most of these costs incurred by a small group of workers who go on long-term disability.
by Melissa Martin