Specialist offers insight into lives of WorkSafe claimants with chronic pain: poverty, depression, suicide attempts

June 8, 2015

(Vancouver) A report released today takes an in-depth look at a sample of WCB (or Worksafe BC) claimants with chronic pain and raises the alarm about serious flaws in how WCB deals with injured workers who develop chronic pain.

“I’ve been working in this area for 25 years, and I’m extremely concerned about what I’m seeing,” says Dr Cecil Hershler, the report’s lead author and a specialist who has worked with thousands of patients with chronic pain many of whom have had workplace injuries. “Financial hardship, severe physical pain, and deep emotional suffering, including suicidal thoughts – these are some of the consequences for my patients who are dealing with the WCB system.”

After seeing a troubling pattern among patients dealing with WCB, Dr Hershler decided to take an in-depth look at the impacts on a sample of these patients. He and co-author Kia Salomons interviewed nine patients with chronic pain resulting from workplace injuries. The authors identified seven key issues facing chronic pain sufferers, including long periods of time with on-and-off payment of compensation or no compensation at all; lack of income and depletion of financial resources; disbelief on the part of employers and WCB; and undue pressure to engage in job search, even when their injuries should have ruled this out.

But what disturbed Dr Hershler most about his findings was the extent to which the interviewees had contemplated suicide – four out of the nine – and attempted it – two of the nine. These findings are reflective of WCB’s own statistics on suicide. An internal document available on the agency’s website shows a startling and steady increase in  “threats of suicide,” from only a handful in the early 2000s to almost 200 in 2010.

In his recommendations for change, Dr Hershler offers concrete ideas for improving patient care and reducing physical and emotional suffering. These include ensuring economic stability during the claims process (including appeals, which can take many years to resolve), not sending patients with serious chronic pain back to work too soon, and ending inappropriate work searches.

One of Dr Hershler’s biggest concerns is that claimants must rely on doctors and rehab specialists employed or contracted by WCB for their treatment. "The priority should be helping the worker recover as much as they possibly can, and this requires collaboration with the patient's own family doctor and pain specialists. The patient should be able to rely primarily on their own providers, whose familiarity and expertise are essential to their recovery, and those providers should play more of a role in WCB’s decision-making process about the patient’s claim and entitlement to benefits, including pensions.”

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Work injuries, chronic pain and the harmful effects of WorkSafeBC/WCB compensation denial: A policy brief is published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office and is available at policyalternatives.ca/wcb-chronic-pain.

For more information and interviews contact Sarah Leavitt, 604-801-5121, x233 or sarah at policyalternatives dot ca.

 

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