In occupational medicine the terms aggravation and exacerbation are often mixed up. This article explains the technical definitions for aggravation and exacerbation, and why the difference matters.
This article is intended for anybody who is interested in learning about the role of a QME in California workers’ compensation.
Question: Dr. Alchemy, Based on limited range of motion for the neck in the PR-4 exam, can the injured worker return to usual and customary work duties? (This worker was provided an impairment rating WPI value, but no work limitations were clinically indicated). Sincerely, DS
Answer: Dear DS, Impairment and disability are two independent concepts. Impairment value is a loss of an organ system or function to which a number value is assigned, whereas, “disability” is an ability to meet social or occupational demands. An individual may have impairment but no disability, or the reverse may be true.
A great example here is a knee injury with a meniscus tear. If I choose to not have surgery, but have range of motion above the ratable guidelines, I have a non-ratable knee, BUT I may not be able to stand, squat or lift to the requirements of the job. So, no impairment, but disability (eg. work limitation).
Same knee example as above, but I have surgery this time and a partial meniscus debridement is performed. My knee is perfect post operatively and no pain. I return work no problems. My impairment, however, is 1% WPI based on DBE table rating in Chapter 17, Lower Extremity Table 17-33 etc.
Summary, when an impairment value is incorporated into the California Permanent Disability Rating (PDR) calculation, true “disability” may or may not be present.
Introducing the RateFast “Adjuster’s Corner”.
Adjuster’s Corner is brought to you by, well, adjusters. This series of newsletters are based on real life letters and questions from insurance carrier adjusters seeking clarity and knowledge of the AMA Guides 5th Edition impairment rating situation in California.
Our responses are provided by Dr. John Alchemy, MD, DABFP, QME, CIME. Dr. Alchemy’s credentials include:
A) A current Qualified Medical Examiner (QME) for the State of CA
B) A certified educational provider for the State of CA DWC Medical Unit, specifically approved for content in the AMA Guides 5th Edition, Chapters 1,2,15, 16 and 17, in addition to advanced impairment report writing (12 hrs CME).
C) Currently certified by the American Board of Independent Medical Examiners (ABIME) as a Certified Independent Medical Evaluator (CIME) and have successfully passed a proctored written exam demonstrating competency in the AMA Guides 5th Edition rating system.
Got a great rating question? Send it in (info email link here)! We love questions almost as much as answers.
Case Study #1 Submitted by adjuster DS:
Question: Dr. Alchemy, why did the cervical spine rating come out so high for a non-surgical neck?
Answer: Dear DS, Do not fall into the trap of responding to impairment values based on the result value. If one reads the rating criteria, surgery is only a subset of the DRE categories, and in no way, a single gateway for rating inclusion etc. Additionally, surgery plays only a subset in the rating determination when using the ROM spine rating.
Rather, I would urge you to focus on the data set that is presented, the validity of the measurements, and the application of the results to the tables and figures. The goal in providing AMA ratings is to provide the stakeholders a numeric value based on statistical rigor, objectivity, and reproducibility.
If you have specific questions as to the validity of a number or the application of a table/figure, please let me know specifically which part of the data set is appears inconsistent and let’s have learning opportunity.
AMA Guides 5ed Glossary Definitions (Pages 599-603)
Below is a common list of terms that help RateFast users better understand the basics definitions used for impairment ratings. You will find many of these terms used in RateFast to provide more consistent and reproducible reports.
A factor(s) (eg, physical, chemical, biological or medical condition) that adversely alters the course or progression of the medical impairment. Worsening of a preexisting medical condition or impairment.
Fixation of a joint in a specific position by disease, injury or surgery. When surgically created, the aim is to fuse the joint in that position, which is best for improved function.
A distribution or allocation of causation among multiple factors that caused or significantly contributed to the injury or disease and existing impairment.
Devices that help individuals with a functional loss increase function. Examples include reachers, extended grabbers, hearing aids, and telephone amplifiers.
An identifiable factor (eg. accident or exposure to hazards or disease) that results in a medically identifiable condition.
Pain that extends beyond the expected period of healing or is related to a progressive disease. It is usually elicited by an injury or disease but may be perpetuated by factors that are both pathogenically and physically remote from the original cause. Because the pain persists, it is likely that environmental and psychological factors interact with the tissue damage, contributing to the persistence of pain and illness behavior.
Combined Values Chart
A method used to combine multiple impairments, derived from the formula A+ B(1-A) w combined values of A and B, which ensures that the summary value will not exceed 100% of the whole person.
A permanent shortening (as of muscle, tendon, or scar tissue) producing loss of motion, deformity, or distortion.
A range of optimal weight given an individual’s sex, age, height and body habitus.
Alteration of an individual’s capacity to meet personal, social, or occupational demands or statutory or regulatory requirements because of an impairment. Disability is a relational outcome, contingent on the environmental conditions in which activities are performed.
Effects of medication
Medication may impact the individual’s sign, symptoms, and ability to function. They physician may choose to increase the impairment estimate by a small percentage (1% to 3%) to account for effects of treatment.
The inability to completely perform a task due to an impairment. In some instances, functional limitations may be overcome through modifications in the individual’s personal or environmental accommodations.
A historical term used to describe disability or a person living with a disability or disabilities. A handicapped individual has been considered to be someone with a physical or mental disability that substantially limits activity, especially in relation to employment or education.
A loss, loss of use, or derangement of any body part, organ system, or organ function.
A medical evaluation performed by a physician, using a standard method as outlined in the Guides, to determine permanent impairment associated with a medical condition.
Impairment percentages or ratings
Consensus derived estimates that reflect the severity of the impairment and the degree to which the impairment decreases an individual’s ability to perform common activities of daily living as listed in Table 1-2.
A conscious and willful feigning or exaggeration of a disease or effect of an injury in order to obtain specific external gain. It is usually motivated by external incentives, such as receiving financial compensation, obtaining drugs, or avoiding work or other responsibilities.
Maximum medical improvement (MMI)
A condition or state that is well stabilized and unlikely to change substantially in the next year, with or without medical treatment. Over time, there may be some change, however, further recovery or deterioration is not anticipated.
A range or zone that represents healthy functioning and varies with age, gender, and other factors, such as environmental conditions.
An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.
A sensation of prickling, tingling, or creeping on the skin, usually associated with injury or irritation of a sensory nerve or nerve root.
An impairment that has reached maximal medical improvement.
An artificial device to replace a missing part of the body.
Any pathological condition of the nerve roots.
A return of the disorder or disease after a remission.
Synonymous with reliability. Consistency in results when examinations (tests) are repeated.
Pain along the course of a sciatic verve, especially in the back of the thigh, caused by compression, inflammation, or reflex mechanisms.
A radiographic method used to determine actual limb length.
The action or manner of treating an individual, medically or surgically. Medical treatment is the action or manner of treating an individual, medically or surgically by a physician. Treatment may include modalities recommended by a health care provider.
An accurate measurement apart from random errors. Validity refers to the extent to which a test measures what it is intended to measure.
Whole person impairment
Percentages that estimate the impact of the impairment on the individual’s overall ability to perform activities of daily living, excluding work.
A compensation program designed to provide medical and economic support to workers who have been injured or become ill from an incident arising out of and in the course of their employment.
- impair (v.) l, from Old French empeirier, from Latin impeiorare “make worse.” In reference to driving under the influence of alcohol, first recorded 1951 in Canadian English.
Okay…. But what does Impairment mean in the world of Workers’ Compensation?
If you’re a medical professional who examines injured employees, then impairment means “a loss, loss of use, or derangement.” (That’s straight out of the in the AMA Guides 5th Edition, Chapter 1, page 2.)
An injured worker’s impairment is considered permanent when the injury reaches “maximum medical improvement” or “MMI”.
Maximal medical improvement means the patient’s condition is unlikely to change in one year.
The AMA Guides 5th edition refers to impairment as permanent impairment. Permanent impairment requires evaluation of a physician.
Remember, loss, loss of use, or derangement means a change from normal.
So, let’s take this example: imagine a 27-year-old construction worker who has injured her right shoulder. At MMI, you as a doctor, measure the injured shoulder, which flexes to 160°, and then you measure the uninjured shoulder, which comes out to 180°. Does this patient have impairment?
The answer yes, because the employee has lost 20° of use.
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An impairment report without an inventory of the patient’s Activities of Daily Living (or ADLs, as we like to say) is like trying to drive to an unknown destination without a map. After all, how can you determine the severity of an injured worker’s impairment without understanding how his or her daily life is (or isn’t) affected?
If you’re a provider writing an impairment report such as a PR-4 report, then asking your patient about his or her activities of daily living is essential. If you’re a claims adjuster or an attorney reviewing an impairment report, keep an eye out for whether or not the physician has made note of the ADLs.
What You Should Know About Activities of Daily Living
- In the the AMA Guides 5th Edition, the Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) are an inventory of 34 activity measurements that show how an injury affects the life of the individual (page 4).
- The activities of daily living include basic functions such as eating, speaking, personal hygiene, and moving around.
- The doctor’s description of ADLs serves as objective support when adjusting the final injury value (Whole Person Impairment WPI) up or down.
- Once determined, the ADL value may serve this function for multiple impairments being calculated. For example, a shoulder injury may not even consider ADL, while a skin injury requires the ADLs to place the condition in a primary category. Other conditions use ADLs somewhere in between, such as determining the influence of pain on a nerve function.
Attention Medical Providers!
If you are examining a worker who has injured multiple body parts, then a separate ADL inventory must be performed on each injured body part. For example, if the worker has injured both her knee and her shoulder, then you should check to see how both her shoulder injury and her knee injury affect each activity.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary. Here’s why:
- A complete ADL inventory tells the person who reads the report (such as an insurance administrator) that you invested additional time and effort into understanding the employee’s level of disability.
- A complete survey of the activities of daily living is a set of data that further supports the conclusions and final calculations of the reports impairment rating.
If you, as a medical provider, assign a worker’s injury a very high impairment rating—such as 90% whole person impairment—then the claims adjuster for the claim needs to understand why. If you demonstrate that the injury has disrupted all of the worker’s activities of daily living, then the impairment rating is supported. But if you don’t mention the activities of daily living at all, then you might very well receive a phone call from the insurance company in short order.
Reports that lack mention of the complete ADL inventory should be carefully considered before the conclusions are accepted as valid.
If a reader of an impairment report is unable to understand how much an injury affects the individual’s daily life, understanding the reasons for arriving at the final whole person impairment (WPI) are nearly impossible.
Bottom line: If you create impairment reports, include a complete ADL inventory. If you’re a RateFast user, then you already know that our PR-4 report-writing system ensures that you ask about each activity for all body parts.
If you review impairment reports, insist that activities of daily living inventories are provided.
Activities of Daily Living are among the most neglected topics to be reported in impairment reports. The AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment Fifth Edition clearly defines activiites of daily living (ADLs) as essential for understanding the impact and creation of impairment ratings (Chapter 1; Philosophy, Purpose, and Appropriate Use of the Guides). Table 1-2 Page 4 lists 34 defined activities of daily living.
Every impairment report created under the AMA Guides should have a clear review of all 34 ADLs. The report should indicate positive and negative responses. It is essential to understand that the goal of the ADL is not to identify functional issues in the workplace. The goal is actually quite the opposite. The goal is to identify an individual’s ability to perform “common activities of daily living (ADL), excluding work.” (Page 4). This allows all individuals to be evaluated on a common basis, the actives necessary in daily living. Remember, this table has nothing to do with the work place.
ADLs have various levels of impact on the impairment calculations depending on the chapter in the Guides 5th Edition. In Chapter 8, The Skin, ADLs are used as primary determination for impairment class assignment (Table 8-2 Page 178). In Chapter 15, The Spine, ADLs are used to adjust the impairment value range (Section 15.4, Page 384). In Chapter 16, Upper Extremity, ADLs are used very little in the rating methods.
Finally, remember as you view activities of daily living some simply cause pain but do not disrupt an activity. Other times the the condition may completely preclude an activity. A well crafted impairment report will make these distinctions. Also, do not simply “write-off” some ADL activities as not relevant. For example, an individual with a shoulder injury may report difficulty with the activities of walking because of pain when the arm swings with the gait motion, or climbing stairs because of pain using the handrail. Traditionally we do not think of walking and climbing steps as being important with a shoulder injury.
A strong understanding of how the ADLs are used in the creation of impairment values will serve you well when discussing and analyzing report conclusions. Require reports to be standardized with this section, and use attention to detail in the ADL section to assess the level of detail that has gone into the report.