Work disability research - why bother?

Dr Mary Wyatt

Management of a work injury can be like a dog’s breakfast.  There can be over treatment, lack of advice for the patient, confusion about what the bureaucratic system need, frustration about delays, and a whole cycle of not trusting the system and the patient.

Any wonder patients with compensable conditions have poorer health outcomes than individuals who are not ‘in the system’. 

We could do so much better.

If a person develops rheumatoid arthritis, it’s likely the drugs they are prescribed have been subject to a significant amount of research.  It’s also likely the doctor has an awareness of the medication and the expectations from the prescription.

Access Economics1 did an economic analysis of the return from health and medical research. 

They found that on average, research in health returned $2.42 for every dollar spent., the best return on investment was in cardiovascular problems or heart disease ($7.68 for every dollar spent in research).  


Research in musculoskeletal and occupational health problems were not assessed, probably as there is so little research in these areas in Australia. 

If we consider the cost of work injuries at over $55 Billion dollars a year in Australia, the potential return on investment in research and better outcomes are extraordinary. 

An example of this is care of people with back pain.  A number of studies have shown that one of the most effective treatments for back pain is giving patients advice and a good understanding of their back problem at the 8-12 week mark of them being off work.  A simple four-hour intervention, costing less than $1000 in most scenarios, has the opportunity to reduce long-term disability from back problems by 50%. 

In Australia we have an extraordinary opportunity to improve the care of people who experience a work-related back problem, yet this simple intervention has not been implemented.  To do so requires an understanding of the research findings, a policy framework that acknowledges and sees such improvements in health care and health outcomes as important, and a political imperative to improve outcomes.

In the meantime, the patient with back pain goes from pillar to post, is fraught with uncertainty and worry about their future, and in the worst-case scenario is lost into the interminable bowels of the system with an eventual cost of somewhere around $1 million in their lifetime.


1 Access Economics (2003). Exceptional returns: the value of investing in health R&D in Australia. Canberra, Australian Society for Medical Research.