Column: Workers' Comp

The Case for Exoskeletons

By: | October 15, 2016 • 2 min read

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

I hope more workers’ compensation insurers seriously evaluate paying for exoskeletons that allow patients with certain spinal cord injuries to rise from their wheelchairs and walk.

Exoskeletons are assistive devices often described as “wearable robots” or “Segways with legs.” Since 2014, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two models for personal use, including one earlier this year.

Some workers’ comp insurers have already approved a few claims for the motorized devices and the cost of training. Other underwriters have declined to fund them.

The battery-powered devices cost at least $80,000 plus additional training. Safety questions remain and some doctors who agree on the medical benefits they provide are still wary of certifying them as “medically necessary.”

But the products are among technological advancements in patient care — like increasingly sophisticated prosthesis — that payers should learn about to adequately weigh the exoskeleton’s price tag against potential medical care and medication expense reductions resulting from their benefits.

“Psychological benefits also result from standing, walking and looking others eye to eye. Well-being impacts claims expense.” – Clare Hartigan, physical therapist, exoskeleton clinical trail leader at Shepherd Center

Attendees at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo in New Orleans can watch an injured worker’s exoskeleton demonstration during a session titled “The Bionic Claimant: Emerging Medical Technology’s Impact on Care and Cost.”

Clare Hartigan, a physical therapist who will speak during the session, has led clinical trials on exoskeletons at the Shepherd Center, a rehab hospital in Atlanta. She will be joined by Mark Sidney, VP of claims at Midwest Employers Casualty Co.

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Exoskeletons’ well-documented medical benefits for spinal injury patients include improved bowel and bladder function, weight loss and better glucose test results, Hartigan said.

“Psychological benefits also result from standing, walking and looking others eye to eye,” Hartigan said. “Well-being impacts claims expense.”

Apart from clinical uses and workers’ comp, other exoskeleton applications are emerging. The military is testing robotic-like suits that could help soldiers carry more weight and reach the battleground less fatigued.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health expects rapid growth in industrial wearable exoskeleton suits that can help workers lift greater loads or hold up heavier tools for longer periods.

But it would also be great to see more workers who have lost their mobility in workplace accidents benefit from the health and quality-of-life improvements exoskeletons offer. Perhaps that will come as more insurers learn about exoskeletons and begin evaluating their unit costs against their impact on medical expenses.

We can also hope for decreases in exoskeletons’ cost as commonly occurs with most technology products. But the companies offering them will need to recoup their R&D expenses. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]