Managed Physical Medicine

Workers’ Comp Costs: Why Physical Therapy is Bigger than You Think (Part 1 of 2)

Occupational injury rates and workers’ comp claim frequency continue to decline. Is your total spend for musculoskeletal treatment following suit?


In this two-part series, “Workers’ Comp Costs: Why Physical Therapy is Bigger than You Think,” we explore some of the reasons why, despite positive overall claim trends, the percentage of claims with physical therapy (PT) involvement is on the rise – and why a managed physical medicine program continues to be a necessary component of workers’ comp managed care.

For almost a decade the news of fewer occupational injury rates and the declining frequency of workers’ compensation claims have been making headlines. Experts credit the downward trend to a wide range of contributing factors, including advances in safety, automation, better management and more.

However, some employers may be surprised that their workers’ comp costs, especially those related to musculoskeletal treatment, are not necessarily mimicking this descending slope.

While injury rates and frequency have been declining, data from the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) show that the percent of claims with physical medicine involvement has been increasing. In 2011, 56 percent of lost time claims included outpatient physical medicine services (i.e., physical therapy, occupational therapy or chiropractic care). By 2017, the 18-state median was up to 63 percent with some states like California and New Jersey even higher at 72 and 71 percent, respectively.

This consistent, year-over-year increase can be attributed in part to a better understanding of the value physical medicine brings to the workers’ compensation community and the benefit it plays in supporting return to work goals.  Physical medicine not only helps address musculoskeletal issues; it also promotes patient participation in recovery and self-management, improves patient compliance with treatment strategies and reduces the risk of re-injury.

Today, mounting evidence shows that early physical therapy also reduces the risk of opioid addiction and can reduce downstream healthcare costs, suggesting that this trend of increased PT involvement will continue and even escalate. With multiple visits to coordinate, continued authorization requests to manage and a variety of return-to-work treatment strategies to implement, employers must ensure they are equipped to effectively manage physical medicine today and in years to come.

Click here to learn more about one managed care program and the trends impacting physical medicine in workers’ compensation.

And stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where we’ll look more closely at the nature and effect of musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace – and physical medicine’s role in getting workers back on their feet.