Why Empathy Is Vital at Every Touchpoint in Workers’ Comp

Empathy plays no small role in achieving positive outcomes for injured workers. It's time this "soft" skill is understood as essential throughout the workers' comp ecosystem.
By: | December 4, 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic and a “new normal” that includes the opioid crisis, isolation, heightened levels of depression and anxiety and financial instability, injured workers may be facing more complicated challenges than ever before, said Silvia Sacalis, VP of clinical services at Healthesystems.

Sacalis, joined by Adam L. Seidner, MD, MPH, chief medical officer of The Hartford, leads the first December presentation of National Comp’s ongoing digital session series — “Empathy and Engagement: The Process of Putting Patients First in Workers’ Comp.”

A recent study by Healthesystems complements a growing body of research that underscores gaps in the system leading to less trust and confidence among injured workers.

The findings showed that 50% of workers experienced a delay in reporting their injuries and 60% of workers reported a negative experience with the medical provider assigned to them.

Other studies, including research from The Hartford, have shown that implementing empathy training can reduce employee turnover and absenteeism, improve productivity and minimize costs associated with claims.

The National Comp session will define empathy — both in a general sense and what it means within health care and workers’ comp. As workers’ comp evolves into a more compassionate, person-centered approach, professionals in the field are learning how to better understand the barriers individuals face in filing claims, staying compliant with treatment and returning to work.

Empathy: A Deep-Dive for Workers’ Comp

Silvia Sacalis, vice president, clinical services, Healthesystems

“Empathy fosters trust with injured workers, and it helps all of the stakeholders in the workers’ comp process to better uncover and understand workers’ challenges and the psychosocial factors affecting them and their treatment regimen,” Sacalis said.

“This goes a long way toward getting them to stay involved and engaged in their own care and improve overall health care outcomes.”

Dr. Seidner points out that while empathy has always been an important aspect of health care, in the pandemic it has become even more important to both literally and figuratively meet individuals where they are. With medical practice closures and hospital overflow, many patients face difficulties physically accessing health care.

In addition, many patients have been fearful of COVID-19 exposure risk in health care settings and they may or may not have access to, or the facility with technology to take advantage of remote medical modalities. These are just a few of the barriers that have recently emerged for injured workers and all of these factors can lead to delays in treatment.

“Many employers already have programs in place such as employee assistance and human resources, but you need to educate the employees that they’re available,” Seidner said.

“You need to identify who is struggling and make sure they are getting the right resources. So when we say empathy we mean close screening, better listening, more patient validation. It’s education, culture, processes, policy — all of these things.”

What’s more, a culture of empathy doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

To be successful, it will require collaboration between injured workers, providers, clients, pharmacists and benefit managers to monitor appropriate utilization of guidelines in order to develop trust and empathy. This can especially drive better clinical outcomes for pain management and decreased morbidity for patients, Sacalis said.

What Attendees Should Expect

During the session, each speaker will present a case study that will illuminate the importance of empathy and building trust in improving the injured worker patient experience through patient engagement and outreach.

Dr. Adam Seidner, chief medical officer, The Hartford

Once again, this is another glaring need that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare. Through a pharmacist-to-patient outreach program, Sacalis has seen firsthand how injured workers respond to connection.

“The heightened isolation we’ve seen has only increased the necessity for more frequent touch points to ensure that injured workers are still on track, not only with prescribed treatments, but to identify suffering from any additional psychosocial issues that have emerged,” she said.

“What’s become more apparent from my experience in leading an outreach process is that the human spirit has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Empathy is crucial to developing the understanding the injured worker population requires to buy into what they need to do and their role in this process of recovery.”

Seidner emphasized the need to look at the whole person with as much context as possible: “Even if you can take care of the medical needs, if you don’t take care of people’s other needs, you’re not going to get the best outcome.”

The session will conclude with some actionable insights audience members can take away and apply to their own medical and pharmacy management program designs to improve the empathy and outcomes.

These include eliminating barriers for patients, training and educating empathetic employees and implementing better processes that align with an empathetic culture.

The hope is that with a more affirmative and caring workers’ comp environment, workers will be healthier and more satisfied, claims will be less expensive, and the system will improve on all sides.

“You can call someone a patient, or a worker, but they are always human,” Sacalis said.

“And the goal is to lead with humanity and put ourselves in their shoes whenever possible. It’s not rocket science, but it’s fundamental.” &

The 2020 National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference virtual event occurred on October 21 with six engaging sessions on issues ranging from the industry’s response to COVID-19 to how it can prepare for the impending talent gap.

The conference will continue producing educational content throughout the year through our on-going digital session series and our Comp Talks program, which will deliver on-demand, short form educational content to hit the busy schedules of workers’ comp professionals.

Our next digital session, “Empathy and Engagement: The Process of Putting Patients First in Workers’ Comp” will detail the critical role empathy plays in addressing workers’ comp claims. Tune in on December 9 at 2:00 p.m. ET  to learn how empathy and engagement can be incorporated into the overall design of medical and pharmacy management programs..

You can register for this talk, and other sessions in our series, here. Be sure to check back regularly, as new content is being added all the time!

Missed the one-day virtual event? You can watch all the session on-demand here.

Elisa Ludwig is a contract writer based outside Philadelphia. She has written extensively about cybersecurity issues for the Junto blog on the eRiskHub. She can be reached at [email protected].

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