Claims Trends

Treating Chronic Pain With Therapies Instead of Drugs

Other pain relief therapies hold substantial promise in defeating drug dependency.
By: | February 20, 2018 • 9 min read

From high praise to a spiraling crash, opioid-based pain medications are out of favor. Once thought to be the solution to chronic pain, opioids opened the door to an even bigger and scarier addiction epidemic — one that menaces the workers’ comp industry and the population in general.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, more than 183,000 people have died from narcotic painkiller addiction. An estimated 91 people die each day from opioid abuse.

“Opioids are dangerous drugs. The side effects are dangerous and severe. Their efficacy is not always what people expect,” said Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire.

“If opioids aren’t the answer, what do we turn to?”

The time to answer that question is now. Workers’ comp professionals, physicians, insurers and employers alike are looking for that next solution to pain, one that will help curb addiction and more quickly get workers on their feet.

Medical cannabis is one candidate.

Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president, chief medical officer, Broadspire

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias,” said Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM, a division of Genex Services.

With opioids, he said, no one knew of the dangers at first. Marijuana, on the other hand, always provoked two very polarized views: It does a great deal of good or it’s a strong drug with bad consequences.

A 2014 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found a link between legalized medical marijuana and a decrease in opioid-related deaths. States that legalized medical marijuana saw a 25 percent decrease in deaths from opioid overdoses.

Yet, “when people make the claim that medical marijuana is the solution to the opioid epidemic, it resonates with some people because of that bias,” said Pew.

Because of ongoing controversy, not to mention its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government, medical marijuana isn’t lined up to be the pain-relief answer anytime soon.

Non-Drug Therapies

So how about this: Let’s treat pain with no drugs. Radical as it may sound, non-drug pain therapies hold merit.

Meta-analyses collected for a U.S. National Library of Medicine study found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) had a positive effect on chronic pain and fatigue. Specifically, CBT was found to be a superior method to other treatments for decreasing pain intensity in fibromyalgia patients.

Iglesias, who has worked as a physician for more than 25 years, said CBT, a psycho-social therapy used to teach patients about the emotional and psychological factors influencing their pain, leaves a lasting impression on the injured.

“The methods I’ve seen work well are behavioral approaches — giving people tools and methods so they can manage their own life.”

“Marijuana is unique in that everyone comes into the conversation with a bias.” — Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

In workers’ comp, physicians using a CBT approach look at an injured worker’s life outside the office walls. Their home life, their health, their financial responsibilities and their mental ability to cope with an injury all factor into the healing process and could potentially lead to a lengthened claim if untreated.

Assessing these additional forces enables a physician to recommend therapies beyond the typical pill prescription.

Sometimes that means sending a patient to physical or occupational therapy. Sometimes yoga or acupuncture will do the trick, with both philosophies tapping into the mind-body connection  and encouraging relief. Exercise, diet and overall wellness are factored into an injured worker’s chronic pain management.

“Drug-related therapies tend to mask the pain symptoms,” said Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management. “Opioids are like the ‘quick fix.’ In physical therapy, we investigate pain patterns, seek to correct musculoskeletal problems and teach people about their anatomy.”

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A non-drug pain therapy, PT looks at the physical components of an injury, educating injured workers about the muscles that hurt and how to effectively use them in daily activities. The big question physical therapists ask: What triggers the pain?

“We look at outside activities that could be affecting the injured worker,” she said. “We look at strength, range and flexibility. We want to change the behavior instead of masking the pain.”

Iglesias pointed to another example of non-drug pain therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), in which health care professionals work with an injured worker to accept their chronic pain but then commit to living their values in spite of that pain.

ACT, in essence, focuses on mindfulness and function in a person’s life.

Iglesias added he’s seen disability duration lessen because more professionals are starting to address function instead of pain.

Cost and Well-being

But pain is still a big factor in an injury, and CBT primarily focuses on pain management. It’s being used increasingly as an alternative to opioids, too. So much so, in fact, that some states are starting to draft legislation aimed at adopting  its methods.

In Ohio, for example, residents with work-related back injuries are now required by law to try remedies such as rest, physical therapy or chiropractic care before surgery or opioids are even brought into the discussion.

And Ohio isn’t alone; at least 17 states have added restrictions on opioid prescriptions, including limiting the length of time such pills can be prescribed. But not all states are turning to CBT and like methods to combat the growing epidemic.

Michelle Despres, vice president, national product leader physical therapy, One Call Care Management

“In workers’ comp, anytime we talk about change, it’s about cost containment,” said Pew. “But this has nothing to do with cost containment, premiums, closing claims, scale of benefits. It’s about personal well-being.”

Iglesias added he has seen much more acceptance of CBT and other non-drug therapies on the payers’ side, though not everyone is on board.

“Payers see opioids have not helped patients. They’re cognizant of needing to move beyond just drug medications. However, psych and behavioral factors can be a significant issue in workers’ comp. Some individual payers are afraid that a behavior approach might induce a psych claim,” he said.

“Nobody wants to pay for everything that happened to you in your life but, in essence, we do when psychosocial concerns aren’t addressed early and it delays recovery,” added Pew.

“There are payers who have started to see the value in the biopsychosocial model [looking at every aspect of a person’s life], but there’s still an obstacle with psych.”

Still, cost-wise, moving beyond opioids yields reduced pharmacy expenses — not just for opioid prescriptions but also for other prescriptions written for opioid-related side effects like nausea, vomiting, headaches, lack of sleep and so on.

“Opioids have addictive qualities,” said Despres. “It’s easy for us as a society to want to see something diagnostic tied to a drug-based solution. But with alternatives, we lose nothing and chances are we can mitigate chronic pain. We know there are no long-term bad effects to physical therapy.

“The cost to get people off of opioids is huge. Just getting them back to their daily routine, the back-end cost of detox from opioids is enough to at least consider other non-drug pain relief methods as the first treatment option.”

Changing Mindsets

Effective change comes once the employers and their workers understand the benefits of non-drug pain therapies.

Untill now, “in between the payer and the treatment is the patient who has often created this passive mindset that someone else will take care of them,” said Pew.

This mindset isn’t going to help in the long run. Education is key for both employees and employers to work toward pain management.

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“One appointment isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Despres. “We have to break the cycle. Time is the biggest downfall; we have to get people moving versus letting someone sit at home. For chronic pain, we provide the education [to the injured worker] on what’s happening inside when they do activities and how to not only manage their symptoms but also correct musculoskeletal imbalances.

“Workers’ comp, as a practice, needs to embrace the idea of being seen quickly and early and getting the injured worker in the mindset of having a role to play,” she added.

For employers, Pew said those who are engaged in their workers’ well-being see more positive outcomes when injuries occur. Investing in wellness programs enables workers to address those outside factors — like psych and diet and exercise routines — before any injury.

“[Wellness programs are] a way of trying to show there is more than a drug or a procedure; employers and physicians can work to teach that concept before an injury even occurs,” said Iglesias.

“There’s a fear that we’re taking something away. There’s a belief that opioids are the best pain modality. Could we develop more programs to teach about opioids to an employer’s population before an injury?”

His answer is a resounding yes.

Public perception plays a big role in the move away from opioids. Workers’ comp professionals, health care workers and legislators see and understand the negative effects of opioids; however, the public isn’t as convinced.

Mark Pew, senior vice president, PRIUM

The New England Journal of Medicine released a study in January entitled, “The Public and the Opioid-Abuse Epidemic.” In it, researchers examined several national polls conducted in 2016 and 2017 regarding how the public believes opioid addiction should be addressed. They found that a significant number (28 percent) don’t actually see it as a national emergency.

Fifty-three percent did say it was a major problem, though only 38 percent of respondents said it affected their home communities.

“An important finding from our review is that at a time when [we] are seeking a substantial increase in government funding for opioid-addiction treatment programs … polls show a large share of the public uncertain about the long-term effectiveness of treatment,” the authors wrote.

They speculate this uncertainty might lead to less funding for alternative treatments to opioids and less funding for people recovering from addiction.

“Sometimes we don’t know everything,” said Despres, “but we should still open up and embrace what could be. If [non-drug therapies] don’t work, you haven’t lost anything. If it does help, you’re better off.”

That’s why engaging employers and their employees is imperative.

“If we see an employer with a pattern of the same injuries, we can offer many possible solutions from ergonomic improvements to classes for body mechanics training.”

A Balancing Act

But one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to pain relief, and while non-drug pain therapies do help, Pew said that doing away with drugs altogether would be unwise.

“Every person is an individual and needs customized — individualized — treatment plans. Every individual is different. How they deal with pain is different, what their support system is like is different — that’s why treating pain is so difficult.

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“Exercise, a better diet, yoga and other non-pharmaceutical treatments are effective, but often underutilized components to a successful pain management protocol. But trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all is counter to common sense,” he added.

In a 2017 study released by JAMA, researchers examined patients admitted to the emergency room for pain-related causes. They monitored the cause of their pain and what medicine brought them relief.

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen were found to be more effective than opioids. Combined, they had as much of an effect on pain as opioids.

Iglesias added, “We do need to move beyond opioids. Other pharmaceuticals do have a role to play, but we need to embrace other modalities of treating pain.” &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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The Profession

For This Pharmaceutical Risk Director, Managing Risk Means Being Part of the Mission to Save Lives

Meet Eric Dobkin, director, insurance and risk management, for Merck & Co. Inc.
By: | September 28, 2018 • 5 min read

R&I: What was your first job?
My first job out of undergrad was as an actuarial trainee at Chubb.I was a math major in school, and I think the options for a math major coming out are either a teacher or an actuary, right? Anyway, I was really happy when the opportunity at Chubb presented itself. Fantastic company. I learned a lot there.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?
After I went back to get my MBA, I decided I wanted to work in corporate finance. When I was interviewing, one of the opportunities was with Merck. I really liked their mission, and things worked out. Given my background, they thought a good starting job would be in Merck’s risk management group. I started there, rotated through other areas within Merck finance but ultimately came back to the Insurance & Risk Management group. I guess I’m just one of those people who enjoy this type of work.

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R&I: What is risk management doing right?
I think the community is doing a good job of promoting education, sharing ideas and advancing knowledge. Opportunities like this help make us all better business partners. We can take these ideas and translate them into actionable solutions to help our companies.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?
I think we have made good advancements in articulating the value proposition of investing in risk management, but much more can be done. Sometimes there is such a focus on delivering immediate value, such as cost savings, that risk management does not get appropriate attention (until something happens). We need to develop better tools that can reinforce that risk management is value-creating and good for operational efficiency, customers and shareholders.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?
I’d actually say there hasn’t been as much change as I would have hoped. I think the industry speaks about innovation more often than it does it. To be fair, at Merck we do have key partners that are innovators, but some in the industry are less enthusiastic to consider new approaches. I think there is a real need to find new and relevant solutions for large, complex risks.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?
Cyber risk. While it’s not emerging anymore, it’s evolving, dynamic and deserves the attention it gets. Merck was an early adopter of risk transfer solutions for cyber risk, and we continue to see insurance as an important component of the overall cyber risk management framework. From my perspective, this risk, more than any other, demands continuous forward-thinking to ensure we evolve solutions.

R&I: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Sticking with the cyber theme, I’d say navigating through a cyber incident is right up there. In June 2017, Merck experienced a network cyber attack that led to a disruption of its worldwide operations, including manufacturing, research and sales. It was a very challenging environment. And managing the insurance claim that resulted has been extremely complex. But at the same time, I have learned a tremendous amount in terms of how to think about the risk, enterprise resiliency and how to manage through a cyber incident.

R&I: What advice might you give to students or other aspiring risk managers?
Have strong intellectual curiosity. Always be willing to listen and learn. Ask “why?” We deal with a lot of ambiguity in our business, and the more you seek to understand, the better you will be able to apply those learnings toward developing solutions that meet the evolving risk landscape and needs of the business.

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R&I: What role does technology play in your company’s approach to risk management?
We’re continuing to look for ways to apply technology. For example, being able to extract and leverage data that resides in our systems to evaluate risk, drive efficiencies and make things like property-value reporting easier. We’re also looking to utilize data visualization tools to help gain insights into our risks.

R&I: What are your goals for the next five to 10 years of your career?
I think, at this time, I would like to continue to learn and grow in the type of work I do and broaden my scope of responsibilities. There are many opportunities to deliver value. I want to continue to focus on becoming a stronger business partner and help enable growth.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?
I’d say right now Star Wars is top on my list. It has been magical re-watching and re-living the series I watched as a kid through the eyes of my children.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in? When I was about 15, I went to a New York Rangers versus Philadelphia Flyers game at the Philadelphia Spectrum. I wore my Rangers jersey. I would not do that again.

Eric Dobkin, director, insurance & risk management, Merck & Co. Inc

R&I: What is it about this work you find most fulfilling or rewarding?
I am passionate about Merck’s mission of saving and improving lives. “Inventing for Life” is Merck’s tagline. It’s funny, but most people don’t associate “inventing” with medicine. But Merck has been inventing medicines and vaccines for many of the world’s most challenging diseases for a long time. It’s amazing to think the products we make can help people fight terrible diseases like cancer. Whatever little bit I can do to help advance that mission is very fulfilling and rewarding.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?
Ha! My kids think I make medicine. I guess they think that because I work for Merck. I suppose if even in a small way I can contribute to Merck’s mission of saving and improving lives, I am good with that. &




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]