Dr Mary Wyatt is an expert on the return-to-work sector in Australia. She was one of several expert speakers at the harmonisation conference in Melbourne at the end of March 2010. Her presentation is available online.
Dr Wyatt spoke from a national perspective and has said:
“The data we have tells us compensation system (sic) are not producing good results. Employees with a compensable condition have poorer outcomes than those who have the same condition in a non compensation situation. For example, those who have surgery have four times the odds of a poor outcome when the condition is compensable.”
She also states that
“An individual not back at work at six months has a relatively poor chance of ever returning to work. People who remain out of the workforce in the longer term have significantly increased risk of health problems.”
Given this information it is understandable for her to question the benefits of undertaking harmonisation of a system that seems not to be achieving its aims.
Dr Wyatt echoes many of the concerns voiced by SafetyAtWorkBlog and OHS professionals on the Australian Government’s plans for harmonisation. The harmonisation of workers’ compensation, as is the OHS reform process, seems to be focusing on the law and not the practice. Practice does not necessary benefit from new laws but it certainly benefits from new co-ordinated approaches.
The approach advocated by Dr Wyatt fits beautifully with the preventative aims of the many health improvement strategies that the Federal Government is wheeling out. Focusing on the people, and providing sufficient resources to “repair” people in the most timely fashion, avoids and negates the need for expensive long-term benefits and reduces the numbers of patients with chronic illnesses.
The risk with the workers’ compensation harmonisation is that it is likely to revolve around matters of premium and insurance rather than the people. It is absurd for governments to be advocating new training programs and re-skilling when some of the most experienced workers are falling out of the working environment through inadequate rehabilitation resources.
Dr Wyatt pointed out to the conference:
“At the moment, people are mistrustful of workers compensation. Many people try to avoid lodging a claim because of the system’s reputation. Employers are increasingly trying to avoid employing people who have a health conditions such as back pain, and the financial bottom line at the policy level seems to be more important than the health of those the system is said to serve.”
The government needs to ask itself whether the effort it plans to put into harmonisation will increase people’s trust of the system, increase the health of those workers in that system and decrease the dominance of premium costs in the business plans of Australian employers.
Kevin Jones is a columnist for RTWMatters a website run by Dr Wyatt and her colleagues.