What’s Actually Working in Workers’ Compensation’s Fight Against Opioids

A panel at the 2019 National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo titled "The Opioid Epidemic: Mitigating Employee Safety and Health Risks" drew audience attention to alternatives that are helping curb the crisis.
By: | November 7, 2019

It’s no secret that opioids are devoting communities across America. A panel at the 2019 National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo titled “The Opioid Epidemic: Mitigating Employee Safety and Health Risks” drew audience attention to a few sobering statistics:

  • Opioids kill approximately 134 people each day in America
  • 92,000 children were placed in foster care due to opioids
  • Fewer than 50% of Americans who abuse opioids have access to addiction medicine

“If you don’t know someone, or if you think you don’t know someone impacted by opioids you’re probably wrong,” said Dawn Watkins, director of integrated disability management, Los Angeles Unified School District.

During the panel, Watkins and her co-presenters Patti Colwell, workers’ comp program manager, Southwest Airlines; Teresa Bartlett, senior vice president and senior medical officer, Sedgwick; and Kim Pfingstag, manager of occupational health and recovery, International Paper spoke on strategies they have used to help fight the epidemic.

What’s Working

The panelists said that a mix of education for injured workers and curbing unnecessary prescribing has helped them combat the opioid epidemic.

On the education front, warning workers of the dangers of opioids after an initial prescription, sending letters about the dangers of opioids and requiring injured workers to have discussions about their prescriptions with employee advocates or nurse case managers helped curb opioid usage.

Education doesn’t end after the initial prescription, however. Patients also need to know how to properly dispose of opioid they don’t use. Panelists cited studies from the University of Michigan that found 70% of drugs prescribed after surgery go unused.

In order to make sure these drugs are properly disposed of, panelists discussed how sending injured workers drug deactivation kits or providing them with education on how to properly dispose of opioids and other drugs.

Working with providers to curb unnecessary prescribing is another important strategy in the fight against opioids.

In the case of the Los Angeles Unified School District, they realized that “most of the [opioid] scripts were written by a handful of doctors,” according to Watkins.

To remedy that problem, the district switched networks and found providers that were dedicated to fighting the epidemic by only prescribing opioids to patients that really needed them and they worked to curb unnecessary prescribing.

Southwest airlines took a different approach to working with physicians. In as many cases as possible, they tried to make sure their injured workers were seeing doctors who weren’t also physician dispensers.

“We pick up the phone and we say, ‘Doc, you can either be a doctor or a dispenser,” Colwell said.

Alternative Treatments

During the second half of the panel, speakers discussed alternatives to opioids for managing pain.

They suggested cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness exercises, yoga and acupuncture as just some of the alternative treatments patients could use to help manage their pain.

“We need to be open to another way of helping people recover,” Watkins said. &


Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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