CHAPEL HILL -- A study of settlement decisions in workers' compensation claims for low back pain has found almost no relationship between the rating of the disability's severity when the claim was settlement and reported pain and disability 21 months later.
Findings were counterintuitive: Claimants with higher disability ratings, which suggest higher severity and less ability to work, fared better than those with lower ratings.
The study shows that "administrative decisions made at the end of the workers' compensation claim process about the ability of someone to work after back injury has very little predictive validity," said Dr. Norton Hadler, a professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Medicine.
Hadler is a co-author of the paper, which was published in the December issue of the Journal of Pain, with colleagues from St. Louis University and the University of Florida. It was based on administrative records in Missouri of workers' compensation claims for low back pain.
Workers' compensation is an important part of America's health-care system, accounting for 3 percent of an employer's gross income, Hadler said.
"Clearly, the rating schemes for workers' compensation are inconsistent, and that fact is stirring enormous pots across the country," Hadler said. "If the outcomes from Missouri generalize, then there is a need to reform how disability is determined."
Another paradoxical finding showed that white claimants faired no better than blacks, even though previous reviews found that blacks were much less likely than whites to be diagnosed with a herniated disk or to have back surgery, had less money spent on their care and received lower disability ratings and smaller settlements.
"It's one of the more perverse observations in our study," said Hadler. "African-Americans were much less likely to be operated on, but the care
Contact: Stephanie Crayton
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill