Featured Article: Comprehending Aggressive Behavior Following A Brain Injury: An Explanatory Framework for Neurobehavior

Jeff Kupfer, Peter R. Killeen, & Randall D. Buzan

“Why is he behaving this way?” is the central question caregivers and family members of patients with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) pose, pointing to extreme agitation, antisocial behavior, insensitive interactions, or other manifestations of his condition. Our clinical team gives various answers from the varied perspectives and expertise of members. Accurate though these explanations are, they often don’t hang together, and often don’t satisfy the questioner. What is wrong with our explanations? Was something lost in translation of scientific jargon? Perhaps some features that could provide a complete explanation were omitted. This paper presents a framework for explanations that permits a more integrated and complete picture, and reminds practitioners of aspects that should be included in a thorough understanding of behavior after TBI.

PART ONE:  Explaining a behavioral event: “How did that lamp break?”

Consider the following family situation: a Sunday afternoon family brunch, post-meal conversation around the dining table. Suddenly we hear the laughter of children, footsteps running down the stairs and through the living room. The front door slams, followed by the sound of a lamp crashing to the floor in the foyer. Table 1 organizes the diversity of explanations by the family members for this household accident.

Table 1. Dialogue amongst family members following a behavior event.

Event is Described Focus “Cause”
Focus on the behavior
“I’ve told them not to run in the house” Running describes the form of behavior Formal
“Joey led the charge out the front door” Trigger was Joey Efficient
“They were bored in here with all the adult talk” State of the system: Arousal ready for displacement Material
“And they were eager to play with that new hoop set you got for Joey’s birthday.” Purpose, function, Final
“Well let’s not forget the sugar high from that excellent dessert” State of the system: Arousal ready for displacement Material
Focus on environment
“It’s smithereens now—no way even grandpa could fix it” Describes current status Formal
“It’s not completely their fault, Helen. That old lamp was pretty tippy: A strong wind would knock it over” Many possible ways for it to break Efficient
“It was Joey who bumped it over” The particular trigger that tripped it Efficient
“Helen! It was missing its fourth leg!!” Lack of structural integrity Material
“Joseph, I think you loosened it just to make this happen, given how you hated that old lamp!” The reason the leg was loosened and broken off Final

We see that an unexceptional event may be examined from various points of view, all which may be correct. Similarly, brain and behavior sciences provide scientific explanations of events from various points of view, but even they typically fall into several classes. These are the classes of explanation identified by Aristotle that are required before we may claim to truly understand a phenomenon (Hocutt, 1974).

Aristotle’s framework for explanations

Aristotle’s name for these classes of explanation was mistranslated as “Causes”, a proper title in modern parlance for only one type (efficient cause). This led to his schema being dismissed as confusing and even teleological. A better class name is reasons for, or becauses (Killeen, 2001). Aristotle’s framework addresses the broad range of possible explanations for any phenomenon, and coordinates these explanations to arrive at a more integrated understanding. We can utilize this model to describe behavior following a brain injury.

Formal causes (names, forms, and models) are the ways we talk about, represent and describe events. They translate the essentials of their relevant aspects into words, numbers or diagrams. Simple descriptions, such as the example above (“running resulted in the lamp breaking”) can get the formal ball rolling, but these can be extended to include models, metaphors, logical phrases, equations, schematics, blueprints, or flowcharts that help us organize, summarize, and communicate phenomena. Behavioral experts use DSM diagnoses as “formal causes” to describe and explain patient behavior, and brain injury professionals use the Glasgow Coma Scale or Ranchos Los Amigos Scale as formal descriptors of a patient’s condition. Physicists and astronomers utilize differential equations as their formal models. Behavior analysts describe behavior with three-and four-term contingencies for simple and conditional discriminations (antecedent, behavior, consequence, A-B-C).

Efficient causes (triggers) refer to the necessary and sufficient conditions to bring about a change in state (factors triggering an event). These are commonly what are meant by “causes” (Joey’s running in the house caused the lamp to fall [when he careened into it]). Efficient causes of reckless behavior identify events or people that trigger action, as well as events that can minimize or prevent its occurrences. Efficient causes are conditions sufficient to trigger the phenomenon being explained that were operative at the critical moment. There may be many possible sufficient conditions, just as there are many possible roads to Rome; functional analyses clarify which ones were operative in a particular case. Necessary causes are usually invoked to explain failures of expected outcomes: Why didn’t the car start? It needed gas (electricity, functional starter, etc.), which are necessary to get the show on the road. Explanations that rely only on efficient causes may become overly mechanistic, thereby distracting investigation from the substrates, underlying mechanisms, and functional aspects.

Material causes (machinery) refer to the substrates, the underlying mechanisms. These causes are of most interest to medical and health professionals who are trained to understand, diagnose, and treat problems with underlying machinery. For instance, high blood glucose may be due to diabetes (formal cause) that may result from insufficient production of insulin (material cause), complicated by eating Twinkies (efficient cause). Parents often turn to material causes to explain challenging behavior in children, particularly when the efficient causes and triggers are inconspicuous and difficult to pin down accurately. “Lacks motivation” is too often the ad hoc explanation by family members; “Lacks character” by neighbors. Explanations that rely exclusively on material causes can become reductionistic, omitting relevant connections to triggers and consequences.

Final causes (functions) are the purposes of an event, what has brought about or sustained a phenomenon or process. Not all phenomena have final causes, or are directly understandable in terms of them. Cerebral edema, for example, is a rescue mechanism of the brain that in extreme can have serious negative consequences. Thus, some outcomes may represent break-down or failure modes of systems, some of which may serve an important function in normal circumstances. Proximate final causes may refer to the immediate consequences of some behaviors or misbehaviors, such as ones that may sometimes occur with the syndrome of TBI: escape and avoidance of difficult situations. Ultimate final causes may involve a learning history that has resulted in current maladaptive behavior.

PART TWO:  Applying Aristotle’s framework to neurobehavioral treatment and the role of Behavior Analysis

When a person becomes aggressive following a brain injury, we quickly try to comprehend the event. We start with a description such as: “He struck the therapist during his therapy session.” This triggers communication with the family, therapists and staff, the physician and other medical professionals, the case managers, insurance adjusters, and so on. The descriptions of the incident set each on their respective paths to explain behavior in order to derive an effective intervention. Agitation has crossed the formal threshold to aggression: physical or verbal behavior directed at another person with the intention to cause harm. We want to know about the specific necessary and sufficient conditions that triggered the aggression (efficient causes), underlying mechanisms (material causes), the function or purpose it served (final causes), and best ways to talk about it, both for treatment, and for communication with family members (formal causes). We may require details about immediate (proximate) variables, as well as enduring variables from the past (personal history, family history) suggesting ultimate reasons for such aggression. In short, we need to communicate much information in a brief period of time for intervention to commence, and we need to continue dialogue throughout treatment to be sure that the stakeholders share our framework.

A Case Study

Sam is a 50-year old male who received a significant brain injury when he was struck by a motor vehicle at the age of 14. Prior to admission to our facility, Sam spent most of his adult life residing at institutional settings where he exhibited physical and verbal aggression, requiring an increased level of staff supervision, and occasional temporary placement in isolated sections of the referring facility.

Upon admission to our program, a functional assessment of problem behaviors (Questions About Behavior Function – QABF) was conducted. The results suggested that physical and verbal aggression were functionally related to attention delivered by caregivers or therapists: When caregivers’ and therapists’ attention to Sam decreased, the probability that he would engage in physical and verbal aggression resulting in attention from others (e.g., redirection, physical intervention or containment) increased. He had the staff on a schedule of negative reinforcement: their lack of attention generated an increase in the frequency of aggression that resulted in a swift staff reaction to escape or delay his aggressive behavior.

On the basis of the functional assessment, differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) was introduced to treat aggression. Under this procedure all caregivers and therapists: (1) provided little or no attention upon physical and verbal aggression by Sam; and (2) shifted the schedule of reinforcement to deliver attention contingent upon Sam’s use of more cordial, alternative attention-requesting behaviors. During the course of treatment his antipsychotic medications were tapered and discontinued as aggressive behaviors decreased.

Figure 1 summarizes the medication adjustments for Sam during treatment. Data for verbal and physical aggression were recorded according to a 30-min partial interval count for occurrence/non-occurrence of target behaviors.

Vertical dashed lines indicate medication adjustments during the course of treatment, and labels indicate the name of the medication and the adjusted dose. Down-arrows preceding medication labels indicate reductions and discontinuations; up-arrows preceding medication labels indicate increases or initiations. From the slope of the curve we may infer changes in response rates— decreases in the slope of the curve over time (negative acceleration) indicate decreases in the occurrence of aggression. In general, these data show variable but negatively accelerating trends; physical aggression rates (dashed line) were lower than those for verbal aggression (continuous line).

Reductions in trazodone and risperidone often occasioned brief bursts of verbal aggression, which gradually decreased to low or zero rates until the next medication taper. Concurrent with the discontinuation of risperidone, Sam developed bursitis in his elbow from an infection that required medical attention. This brief delivery of attention was correlated with extreme verbal and physical aggression in response to pain in his elbow. After medical treatment was administered, DRA treatment was reinstated for the remainder of the study. However, it was unclear whether this brief delivery of medical attention inadvertently produced and sustained the higher rates of aggression that lasted for approximately five weeks, until risperidone was reinstated, producing a gradual reduction in the frequencies of target behaviors. When these target behaviors approached zero rates, clozapine was introduced and substituted for risperidone, producing brief but decreasing bursts of target behaviors. Subsequently, risperidone was discontinued without any increase in aggression, as was clozapine.

In this example the search for efficient causes (decrease in level of staff attention) and final causes (attention received) resulted in an intervention to change the triggers and consequences. Aggression gradually decreased as a function of shifting the contingencies of reinforcement. This functional relation was confirmed inadvertently when the brief, but intense complaints of pain by Sam produced an unavoidable medical attention to treat bursitis. Additionally, a material explanation (chemistry potentially more responsive to clozapine than to risperidone) produced an intervention based on a review of the current medications and a gradual taper to determine therapeutic effectiveness, and eventual substitution of medications that was either more effective or had fewer agitating side effects. This case history constitutes one more example of attempts at efficient and material explanations, inquiries that expose a range of variables with the potential to contribute to understanding complex behaviors ranging from ADHD (Killeen, Tannock,  & Sagvolden, 2012), to hypnosis (Killeen & Nash, 2003). 

Further benefits from analyses of efficient causes

Closer examination of subtle environmental triggers and contingencies reveals interesting and unexpected efficient causes for behavior that can inform neurobehavior treatment. Recent research, (Mace, McComas, Mauro, Progar, Taylor, Ervin, & Zangrillo, 2010), for example has suggested that DRA procedures may actually prolong extinction effects (causing “extinction bursts”) due to behavioral momentum, thereby prolonging the persistence of target behaviors. Conducting a DRA procedure in a separate context from which learning the target behavior occurred can, however, decrease resistance of the problematic behavior to extinction. Similarly, there are situations in which the extinction component of the DRA procedure cannot be implemented— combative behavior may be too intense to stop or directed toward others in ways that cannot be ignored. In a series of experiments Athens and Vollmer (2010) demonstrated that behavior treatment plans that involve manipulating reinforcer duration, quality, delay, or a combination of these in ways that favors appropriate behavior rather than problem behavior can still produce more appropriate responses, even though problem behavior received occasional (albeit, lower) reinforcement. In both of these cases, the procedures have some risks consequent on implementation (increases in target behavior), but these can be minimized with refinement of the consequences (final causes) thereby averting the need to use medications (material necessary causes) to address the problem.

Behavior analysis techniques can yield benefits in addition to merely addressing problem behaviors as in the above example. An analysis of triggers and consequences can produce more robust effects when teaching adaptive living skills. Decades of research in applied behavior analysis has generated instructional methods for teaching in homes and classrooms, as well as vocational and rehabilitation settings, such as errorless learning (Chandonnet & Kupfer, 2014; Sidman, 2012), fluency and precision teaching (Binder, 1996), and stimulus equivalence training (Sidman, 1994). Research suggests that efficient and final explanations are primarily useful when there is a problem behavior to reduce or eliminate, but other formal explanations (e.g., TBI patients often lack social competence) help clarify potential deficiencies in appropriate responding that may be the result of environmental contingencies that sustain inappropriate behaviors. Thus, if the individual with brain injury could acquire skills in PT, OT, SPL, and so on more quickly and effectively by changing teaching methods, problem behaviors might be less likely to occur. Teaching methods derived from ABA (efficient and final causes) thereby complement those methods used to increase brain, body, and sensory health (material causes).

A thorough bibliography of evidence-based teaching methods for persons with brain injury is located on the Brain Injury Webpage for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies: www.behavior.org.

Pursuing interrelationship between efficient and material causes

            What are the interactions between efficient causes and material causes? In the example of the broken lamp, one family member focused on reckless behavior in the home, but another alluded to the causes involving the environment—a wobbly lamp, an accident waiting to happen. In neurobehavioral treatment, proximate (temporally immediate, relevant and conspicuous) influences over behavior are revealed during initial assessments and ongoing progress reviews, but access to past environmental events or historical influences (medical records, psycho-social histories, interviews, and verbal reports) are relevant as well. Expanding the causal time frame, an examination of family history may reveal generational patterns that implicate ultimate genetic influence. Neurobehavioral approaches do not simply treat a person with a brain injury; they provide treatment within a context of immediate and historical influences.

Figure 2 represents the broader influences of both ultimate variables (across large timeframes) and proximate variables (most recent or conspicuously present) in the Aristotle’s framework to explain the causes of ADHD (Killeen et al, 2012). In this figure, the inner set are proximate (molecular) causes and the outer set ultimate (molar) causes. Triggers of symptoms (states) are proximate efficient causes; triggers of the phenotype (traits) are ultimate efficient causes. Material causes comprise the hardware underlying the behavior (proximate, neurophysiology) and the syndrome it instances (ultimate, structural, or genetic). Recursive arrows show outcomes can modify the system to change the sensitivity to correlated stimuli and responses through shifts in attention, learning, and reframing of the situation.

Isolating interactions between efficient and material causes of behavior is often difficult; however, the topic is of paramount importance in behavior analysis, particularly in relation to interactions between: genes and environment (Suomi, 2002), consequences, genes and brain development (Schneider, 2012), unique conditioning histories and drug effects (Branch, 2006; Terrace, 1963), and behavioral and biological systems (Thompson, 2007). Accordingly, the language of the behavior analysis community continues shifting to accommodate the expansion of efficient and material explanations (Hineline, 1980; Hineline & Groeling, 2011). Skinner (1989) had pointed us in this direction:

“There are two unavoidable gaps in any behavioral account: one between the stimulating action of the environment and the response of the organism, and one between consequences and the resulting change in behavior. Only brain science can fill those gaps. In doing so it completes the account; it does not give a different account of the same thing. Human behavior will eventually be explained (as it can only be explained) by the cooperative action of ethology [which we place as ultimate mechanism, an evolved organism in its niche], brain science [proximate machinery], and behavior analysis [formal, efficient and final causes].” (p.18)


When caregivers and family members seek explanations about behavior changes observed in patients with brain injuries, there is a distinction between “what” is happening, “why” it is happening and “how” it is happening. Addressing the “what” question requires careful analyses to ensure that behavior is not mischaracterized—that it is not, for instance, within the normal range of human responses. If the behavior is categorizable, it is essential that all plausible categories of explanation have been considered. Inferences to material and final causes should be avoided in first-level formal descriptions. These actions all address formal causes. A reference to “why” may lead to consideration of “what was gained by it”, a question about goals and reinforcers. But it may also refer to instigating factors. Thus “why” questions are cues to discuss both the triggers for behavior (efficient causes) and sustaining reinforcers (final causes) It may also reveal a concern over “structure and under lying mechanisms” that govern the behavior (material causes).

Neurobehavioral treatment should attempt to address all of these perspectives. Addressing all four causes (Formal, Efficient, Material, and Final) at relevant levels—molar and molecular—can lead to more comprehensive and inclusive strategies, and a more convincing understanding of behavior for patients, their families, and clinicians.


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Lead Artilcle of BIP: Current Theories of Post-Traumatic Tinnitus

By Mikhaylo Szczupak, MD, and Michael E. Hoffer, MD

Tinnitus is an auditory perception in the absence of any external sound stimulus. Many factors have been associated with tinnitus, such as brain injury, hearing loss and old age. Although the pathophysiology of this disease entity remains unknown, leading theories suggest that the following portions of the auditory pathway may be involved: injured cochlear hair cells repetitively stimulating auditory nerve fibers, spontaneous activity within individual auditory nerve fibers, hyperactivity of auditory brain stem nuclei, or reduction in suppressive activity of the central auditory cortex on peripheral auditory nerve activity (Atik, 2014). The study of tinnitus continues to be a challenge because of the subjective nature of the condition, its likely multifactorial etiology and the many varied tinnitus assessment scales (Hoffer et.al. 2003). Our goal in this review will be to examine several subtypes of post-traumatic tinnitus, in particular acoustic trauma, traumatic brain injury and barotrauma.

Acoustic Trauma
There is a well-known association between history of exposure to noise trauma, high-frequency hearing loss and the presence of high-pitched “whistling tinnitus” (Nicolas-Puel et al., 2006). Hearing loss severity has been demonstrated to predict degree of tinnitus discomfort in symptomatic individuals (Dias et al., 2008) Although pitch matching is not a perfect technique for measuring tinnitus symptoms, the most commonly observed frequency of tinnitus is often the same as the worst frequency for hearing (Axelsson, et al., 2002). Many believe that impulse noise is more damaging to hearing than continuous sound, pure tones are more harmful than composite sounds and high-pitched sounds are likely more harmful than low-pitched sounds (Axelsson, et al., 2002). Clearly there is an association between noise trauma and tinnitus but the exact pathogenesis remains enigmatic.

Acoustic trauma damages the hair cells of the cochlea by exerting vascular, metabolic and chemical changes on normal physiologic processes (Fausti et al., 2009). These changes have been shown to cause decreased hair cell stereocilia stiffness, auditory nerve cell swelling and ultimately cell death/degeneration of auditory nerve fibers (Fausti et al., 2009). The cochlear damage seen following acoustic trauma can be either temporary or permanent and may occur in the absence of elevated hearing thresholds (Schaette et al., 2011) Interestingly, in individuals with normal audiograms, the occurrence of tinnitus is not correlated with current occupational noise level, duration of noise exposure or even cumulative noise exposure (Rubak et al., 2008). Alterations seen following acoustic trauma may be seen centrally in addition to the peripheral changes in the cochlea mentioned above. Current theories suggest that this etiology of tinnitus is related to auditory deprivation secondary to an acoustic insult causing enhanced synchronization of neuronal activity in the auditory cortex (Ortmann el al., 2011). Ortmann et al. were the first to demonstrate these neuroplastic changes in humans, with 13 of 14 amateur rock musicians exhibiting increased gamma activity in the right auditory cortex with transient tinnitus and temporary hearing loss after noise exposure (Ortmann el al., 2011).

Certain vocations, particularly military service members, are at an increased risk of acoustic trauma and as a result, both tinnitus and hearing loss (Mrena et al., 2002). The acoustic environment of a military setting is unique for several reasons: warfighters are often required to remain in noisy environments to complete a mission without the possibility of rotating out. Aircraft/firearm operations take place in reduced areas compared to civilian operations. and individuals may sacrifice hearing protection to more easily communicate with other team members (Yankaskis, 2013). Service weapons may produce noise levels ranging from 150 to 180 dB of sound pressure level (SPL), exceeding the 140 dB SPL threshold where there is a high probability of sustaining marked damage to the auditory system (Ylikoski et al., 1995). There are few studies within the current literature reporting the prevalence of tinnitus within the entire active-duty/veteran United States (U.S.) military population. Helfer et al. demonstrated a 30.8% point estimate for tinnitus prevalence in active U.S. Army soldiers (Helfer et al., 2004). Higher rates of noise-induced tinnitus have been found for military personnel of other nations (Mrena et al., 2009).

Even more common than military service is exposure to music both professionally and recreationally. Hagberg et al. surveyed 407 Swedish music academy students and found that tinnitus was the most prevalent symptom (10.6 individuals per 1000 years of instrumental practice) (Hagberg et al., 2005). Potier et al. investigated tinnitus in disc jockeys, another population of professional musicians (Potier et al., 2009). Nearly three quarters (75.9%) of the 29 included disc jockeys complained of tinnitus, that on pitch matching corresponded with patterns seen on audiogram (Potier et al., 2009). With evolving portable music technology and ever popular electronic dance music festivals, recreational loud music exposure continues to increase. Approximately 75 to 90% of young adults have experienced transient tinnitus after loud music exposure (Quintanilla-Dieck et al., 2009. Gilles et al., 2012). These individuals reported minimal awareness of the long term impact of chronic loud music exposure with only 15% using ear plugs in a concert/nightclub setting (Quintanilla-Dieck et al., 2009). There exists an obvious potential for education of these young adults as well as professional musicians on the proper use of hearing protection to prevent tinnitus and hearing loss.

Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a broad term used to describe an entity in which there is either a blunt or blast force applied to the head transmitting force to the brain. The incidence of TBI in both the civilian and military populations continues to be a public health issue. Based on the most recent CDC statistics, 2.4 million annual emergency department visits, hospitalizations or deaths were a result of TBI (Coronado et al., 2012). Approximately 75% of these injuries can be classified as mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) (National CIP, 2003). To warrant diagnosis of mTBI an individual must meet the following criteria: Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) greater than or equal to 13, loss of consciousness not in excess of 1 hour and post-traumatic amnesia not exceeding 24 hours. Even with decreasing frequencies of operational military engagements, mTBI incidence is expected to remain constant as a result of military training exercises and participation of active duty members in recreational sports (Terrio, et al., 2009).

Tinnitus has been well studied in individuals suffering mTBI, particularly in the military. Since 2007, tinnitus has been the most common service-connected disability of both new (completion of service within the prior 12 months) and existing military veterans (US DOVA, 2015). Based on its prevalence in proportion to all other service-connected disabilities, the cost of tinnitus is estimated to be greater than $3 billion annually in military veterans alone (US DOVA, 2015). Balance disorders, hearing loss, tinnitus, cognitive difficulties and/or sleep disturbances can be seen in more than 95% of all individuals who sustain mTBI (Hoffer et al., 2010). One or more of these symptoms will persist in greater than 80% of individuals treated with the current standard of care (Hoffer et al., 2010).
Oleksiak et al. demonstrated that 76% of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom veterans diagnosed with mTBI during active duty reported tinnitus upon subsequent audiological evaluation (Oleksiak et al., 2012). In one of the largest epidemiological studies to date, Yurgil et al. prospectively assessed 1647 active-duty Marine and Navy servicemen for tinnitus and TBI (Yurgil et al., 2015). Deployment-related TBI, blast exposure and multiple TBIs each more than doubled the likelihood of post deployment tinnitus (Yurgil et al., 2015). Interestingly, the prevalence of tinnitus in the civilian population recovering from TBI has been found to be slightly lower than the military population. A pilot study of middle aged individuals recovering from blunt TBI by Jury et al. demonstrated that 53% reported symptoms of tinnitus (Jury et al., 2001). The principal theory as to why brain injury leads to auditory dysfunction is thought to be a result of diffuse axonal injury to the central auditory pathway (Nolle et al., 2004). Clearly, tinnitus following mTBI is a partially understood, prevalent condition that is worthwhile to screen for in both military and civilian populations.

The natural history of history of tinnitus secondary to mTBI follows an unexpected course. In data collected from 148 service members who sustained mTBI secondary to blast, over 90% reported “non-concerning ringing” immediately after the injury (Hoffer and Balaban, 2011). One week later only 70% reported tinnitus, and 10 days later less than 33%. Surprisingly, this value then rises to over 60% several months after the initial injury. There are likely multiple factors involved in this trend such as pre-existing tinnitus, “primed” inner ear from previous noise exposure and incompletely understood pathophysiology (Hoffer and Balaban, 2011).
Exclusive to blast mTBI, tympanic membrane rupture is a commonly observed sequelae. Of the 33 victims from the 2005 Thailand terrorist bombings with complete otologic and audiologic follow-up, 22 (66%) exhibited some degree of tympanic membrane perforation (9 bilaterally, 13 unilaterally) (Tungsinmunkong et al., 2007). The tympanic membrane is the most frequently injured anatomical structure from blast and the least resistant to increased atmospheric pressure (DePalma et al, 2005). As a result, some have suggested that if the tympanic membrane is intact, then any primary effects of the blast wave on other air-containing organs are unlikely (DePalma et al., 2005). The majority (75%) of tympanic membrane perforations heal spontaneously within several months without complication while the remainder require surgical intervention (Kronenberg et al., 1993).
There are several specific causes of pulsatile and nonpulsatile tinnitus that occur following TBI. A vascular origin is assumed for pulsatile tinnitus until proven otherwise, several of which are considered life threatening (Kruezer et al., 2014). The three most common causes of post-traumatic pulsatile tinnitus are carotid dissection, arteriovenous fistulas and carotid cavernous fistulas (Chae et al., 2001. Liang et al., 2007. Redekop, 2008). Post-traumatic nonpulsatile tinnitus can occur due to injury at several points along the auditory pathway, such as the cochlea, the auditory nerve or the brain (Kruezer et al., 2014). The most frequent etiologies of nonpulsatile tinnitus are temporal/petrous bone fractures, labyrinthine concussion, ossicular chain disruption and perilymphatic fistula (Fitzgerald, 1995. Chen et al., 2001. Ulug and Ulubil, 2006. Yetiser et al., 2008). The latter two typically surgical intervention and can also be seen following barotrauma.

Air travel and underwater diving are two common situations when barotrauma to the ear may occur. These injuries are a result of rapid pressure changes from either ascending or descending with inadequate pressure equalization. Damage ensues from a pressure gradient between the middle ear cavity and the external atmosphere across the tympanic membrane (Mirza and Richardson, 2005). For ascent during both air travel and underwater diving, the ambient atmospheric pressure decreases while the gas in the middle ear cavity expands. Subsequently, the eustachian tube opens and vents off positive air pressure beginning at a pressure differential of 15 mmHg (Mizra and Richardson, 2005). Problems rarely occur with passive venting if the eustachian tubes are patent and functioning properly. In contrast, descent during both air travel and underwater diving is an active process. Air does not typically enter the middle ear cavity passively and some form of muscular activity (swallowing, yawning, chewing, etc.) is required. At a pressure differential of 90 mmHg, the soft nasopharyngeal end of the eustachian tube closes at a force greater than that which can be developed by the muscles that open the tube.41 Attempts to equalize pressure once this has occurred are ineffective. The significant density disparity between water and air explains why barotrauma occurs more frequently from underwater diving compared to air travel (Becker and Parell, 2001).

Damage may occur as a result of mucosal edema or blood within the middle ear cavity causing symptoms of tinnitus and/or hearing loss (Becker and Pareell, 2001). More severe injuries include tympanic membrane rupture and ossicular chain disruption (Mizra and Richardson, 2005). Less frequently, injury to the inner ear structures may occur, commonly presenting with the additional symptom of dizziness. Three hypothesized mechanisms of injury are hemorrhage, labyrinthine membrane tear and perilymph fistula via the oval or round windows (Mizra and Richardson, 2005). Damage to the round window occurs more frequently because the oval window membrane is thicker and protected by the both the stapes footplate and surrounding ligaments (Mizra and Richardson, 2005). Treatment of barotrauma injuries is generally conservative aside from ossicular chain disruption, perilymphatic fistula and refractory tympanic membrane perforation, which all require surgery (Duplessis and Hoffer, 2006).

Tinnitus is a common sequelae following brain injury. Severe traumatic events can cause multiple sub-types of post-traumatic tinnitus. For example, following a major blast injury, a soldier may sustain traumatic brain injury as well as acoustic trauma and barotrauma. Additionally, tinnitus is rarely the only complaint after trauma and individuals may present with multiple symptoms which all require evaluation (Kreuzer et al., 2014). A comprehensive diagnostic assessment (complete history and physical, audiological testing, imaging) is crucial to identify the injury and guide treatment which will be covered in subsequent articles within this edition. Ultimately, education and prevention will take a leading role in averting post-traumatic tinnitus as these protective technologies continue to develop.

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Fausti SA, Wilmington DJ, Gallun FJ, et al. Auditory and vestibular dysfunction associated with blast-related traumatic brain injury. J Rehabil Res Dev. 46(6): 797-810, 2009.

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Hagberg M, Thiringer G, Brandstrom L. Incidence of tinnitus, impaired hearing and musculoskeletal disorders among students enrolled in academic music education—a retrospective cohort study. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 78(7): 575-83, 2005.

Helfer TM, Jordan NN, Lee RB. Postdeployment hearing loss in U.S. Army soldiers seen at audiology clinics from April 1, 2003, through March 31, 2004. Am J Audiol 2005.14(2): 161-8, 2005.

Hoffer ME, Balaban C. The Impact of Blast on Balance. Presented at the International State-of-the-Science Meeting on Blast-Induced Tinnitus, November 15-16, 2011, Chantilly, VA, USA.

Hoffer ME, Balaban C, Gottshall K, et al. Blast exposure: vestibular consequences and associated characteristics. Otol Neurotol. 31(2): 232-6, 2010.

Hoffer ME, Wester D, Kopke RD, et al. Transtympanic management of tinnitus. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 36(2): 353-8, 2003.

Jury MA, Flynn MC. Auditory and vestibular sequelae to traumatic brain injury: a pilot study. N Z Med J. 114(1134): 286-8, 2001.

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Kreuzer PM, Landgrebe M, Vielsmeier V, et al. Trauma-associated tinnitus. J Head Trauma Rehabil. 29(5): 432-42. 2014.

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Captain Michael E. Hoffer, MD, received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and graduated from Medical School at the University of California, San Diego. After his Otolaryngology Residency at the University of Pennsylvania, he completed a neurotology fellowship with Dr. Herb Silverstein in Sarasota, Florida after which he was commissioned as an active duty officer in the United States Navy. Captain Hoffer is board certified in Otolaryngology and Neurotology and serves as specialty leader for Navy Otolaryngology. Dr. Hoffer serves on multiple national level boards including the council of the Triologic Society, the council of the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, and the NASA Neurologic IPT. He is a member of many national and international societies and considered an expert in inner ear drug delivery and audio-vestibular disorders after blunt and blast head trauma. Captain Hoffer has been deployed twice to Iraq serving with the U.S. Marines and is Fleet Marine Corps Officer Qualified.

Mikhaylo Szczupak, MD, is post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Miami.

To view list of other articles within Brain Injury Professional for this edition, click here.

Rethinking Brain Injury


By Flora M. Hammond, MD and James F. Malec, PhD

To some degree, we always knew that brain injury (BI) was a chronic condition. However, its presentation is often life-threatening and dramatic with the initial medical response so intensive, that it is easy to lose sight of the aftermath. After the initial storm passes — for those who survive the storm—life is often never the same. Individuals with BI and their families and close others often want to believe that once they leave the hospital things will soon return to normal. So early care providers may not belabor the reality that the return to normal may take months if not years — and even then, it is likely to be to a “new normal.”

Masel and DeWitt’s (2010) landmark article brought this reality clearly into focus. They described the medical implications and advantages of reconceptualizing BI as a chronic condition rather than as an “injury” which, like a broken bone, will heal with complete return to normal function. Although mechanisms remain controversial, renewed interest in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE; McKee et al., 2009) reinforced this reality by identifying individuals for whom a traumatic BI appears to initiate a disease process resulting in neurological deterioration.

Survival after BI increased dramatically following the broader availability of emergency response teams in the community in the 1970s. We are only now beginning to witness how BI complicates normal aging as the first cohorts of these early survivors reach more advanced age. In this article, we review the nature of BI as a chronic condition, associated risks and increasing risks with advancing age, and the potential benefits of applying chronic disease management (CDM) strategies over the life time of individuals living with BI.


Chronic BI: Associated Risks

A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report (Ishibe et al., 2009) on the long term consequences of BI found convincing evidence in the literature that a history of traumatic BI is associated with increased risk for dementia and Parkinsonism, cognitive impairments and decline, seizure and hormonal disorders as well as long term emotional and social problems, and unemployment (Table 1). Many of these risks may be compounded by a normal aging process. Advancing age also increases risk for these same medical conditions as well as for social isolation and depression. The IOM reported suggestive evidence (Table 1) of increased risk for suicide and psychosis and that many of the risks associated with moderate-severe traumatic BI may also be present in cases of milder injury.


Marwitz and colleagues (2001) note that such co-morbid medical conditions may result in re-hospitalization after the initial injury, and that the reason for re-hospitalization varies with time post-injury. Seizures and psychiatric disorders tend to present in the first years after trauma; whereas, other conditions requiring hospitalization are more typical five years post-injury. A single traumatic BI significantly increases the risk of a subsequent traumatic BI with potentially even more severe and cumulative effects (Coronado et al., 2013). The risk for substance abuse may decline in the first few years after injury (Table 1), probably because greater disability and supervision during this early period reduces access. Studies of substance abuse in BI may also be biased by the dependence on the subjective report which requires both honest reporting and successful follow up contact. Hammond et al. (2000) documented a pattern of increasing illicit drug use over the first five years following BI. Upon initial impression it appears there is a flat 8-15% illicit drug use during the first 5 years post-injury. However, 45-76% of those reporting drug use were new reports from individuals who had declined drug use the prior year. While several studies have found shortened life expectancy following traumatic BI, in a tightly controlled study of mortality, Brown and colleagues (in press) found that the risk of death is no greater after traumatic BI than after other injuries when these two groups are equated for the severity of nonhead injuries. However, longevity is reduced for both brain and nonbrain injuries—suggesting that premature death may not be due to the BI itself but associated medical conditions.

Picture any individual with BI familiar to you and then imagine how his or her health and quality of life would be improved if this person had the opportunity simply to receive regular and routine follow-up with a written plan for ongoing care, education in self-management, and more intensive medical and psychosocial interventions as required.

The evidence of increased risk after BI for medical and psychosocial morbidity is clear. Additionally, data from the TBI Model Systems National Database (www.tbindsc.org) reveals that almost a third of individuals demonstrate functional decline over a 15 year period following traumatic BI (Figure 1). On a more positive note almost 40-45% are stable over this period, and about a quarter improve. Factors that contribute to the direction and slope of this functional trajectory are not well understood at this time, and may include the presence or absence of medical co-morbidities, genetic predisposition, and quality and consistency of ongoing care. That functional status remains stable or even improves in the majority of cases offers hope that, with more consistent follow-up and services and with continuing research, the proportion of cases showing decline can be reduced and decline itself can be progressively delayed.


Chronic Disease Management (CDM)

A chronic disease management (CDM) approach has been found to be the optimal way to address other medical conditions, such as, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, that expose affected individuals to additional medical risks.

Primary features of the CDM approach include: (1) integration of care across organizational boundaries that is supported with information and communication technology, e.g., telehealth, smartphone apps, (2) patient self-management, and (3) guideline implementation and systems to promote standardized care (Fitzsimmons et al, 2012). More specifically, CDM is based on the best available evidence relevant to the target disorder and begins with a comprehensive evaluation and screening for commonly associated conditions. On the basis of these initial evaluations, well-defined treatment priorities and goals, including prevention and maintenance, are established and documented in written care plans. These goals and priorities are developed in active collaboration with patient, close others, other members of the medical and psychosocial team, and community partners. As clinical experience and research in chronic care of the target disorder becomes more available, detailed protocols for lifelong management can be disseminated in the field. The condition may be stratified by severity or other features that link to more specific interventions. Such protocols include stepped care plans that prescribe progressively more intensive interventions to more aggressively address the emergence or worsening of medical and psychosocial co-morbidities or functional decline. Most importantly, an active and defined follow-up schedule is established with regular re-evaluations and modification of the care plan as appropriate. These elements are summarized in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) General Principles of Good Chronic Care (WHO, 2004; Table 2).


As mentioned previously, an important component of CDM is engaging patients in active self-management of their conditions with the support of close others as required. It is estimated that individuals with chronically disabling conditions spend an average of only 2 hours out of the 8,760 hours available each year with their physician. Thus, to create change we must look beyond the traditional health professional encounters and empower the person with CBI to be in charge of their care. Self-management approaches activate, empower, and build a sense of self-efficacy through teaching patients and their close others how to monitor and manage their conditions as well as when to seek professional help. Education and implementation in self-management typically uses multiple modalities including individual and group sessions reinforced with written, web-based, and multi-media materials. As with CDM generally, self-management approaches can become more detailed and specific as research and experience in chronic care of a disorder develops to provide a basis for protocol-driven care.

CDM for BI

The increased risk of medical comorbidities as well as psychosocial and functional decline after BI justifies the implementation of a CDM approach to lifelong care following these types of injuries. The WHO principles for good chronic care (Table 2) provide a roadmap for this far-reaching practice change with expected benefits in improved health and quality of life for individuals with BI. Prevention or delay of functional decline is also a reasonable expectation as is an associated increase in the proportion who experience functional improvement over time post-BI. The field is not yet at the point of developing highly detailed, evidence-based protocols for management and self-management in BI CDM. However, such evidence will become available through ongoing research and clinical experience. Appropriate funding for both clinical care and research in BI CDM is critical to successful implementation. While the initial implementation of a CDM approach in BI may initially increase health care costs for this previously neglected group of patients, these costs should be offset over time as the prevalence of costly rehospitalizations, medical and psychosocial co-morbidities, and productivity loss is reduced.

Picture any individual with BI familiar to you and then imagine how his or her health and quality of life would be improved if this person had the opportunity simply to receive regular and routine follow-up with a written plan for ongoing care, education in self-management, and more intensive medical and psychosocial interventions as required.


Brown A, Leibson C, Mandrekar J, Ransom J, Malec J. Longterm survival after traumatic brain injury: A population-based analysis. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation in press.

Coronado VG, McGuire LC, Faul M, Sugerman DE, Pearson WS. Traumatic brain injury epdiemiology and public health issues. In: Zasler ND, Katz DI, Zafonte RD (eds), Brain Injury Medicine (2nd ed), New York: DemosMedical, 2013.

Fitzsimons M, Normand C, Varley J, Delanty N. Evidencebased models of care for people with epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior 2012;23:1-6.

Hammond F, Donnelly K, Sasser H, Corrigan J, Bogner J, Weintraub A, Berry J, Kreutzer J. Illicit drug use over time following traumatic brain injury. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2000;81:1260.

Ishibe N, Wlordarczyk RC, Fulco C. Overview of the Institute of Medicine’s committee search strategy and review process for Gulf War and health: Long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation 2009;24:424-9.

Marwitz JH, Cifu DX, Englander J, High WM, Jr. A multicenter analysis of rehospitalizations five years after brain injury. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation 2001;16:307-17.

Masel BE, DeWitt DS. Traumatic brain injury: a disease process, not an event. Journal of Neurotrauma 2010;27:1529-40.

McKee AC, Cantu RC, Nowinski CJ, Hedley-Whyte ET, Gavett BE, Budson AE et al. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in athletes: progressive tauopathy after repetitive head injury. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 2009;68:709-35. WHO. General Principles of Good Chronic Care 2004. Available from: www.who.int/hiv/pub/imai/generalprinciples082004.pdf.


About the authors

Flora M. Hammond, MD is a board certified physiatrist who completed her medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) residency at Baylor College of Medicine, and brain injury fellowship at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. Since December 2009, Dr. Hammond has served as the Covalt Professor and Chair of PM&R at the Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) and Chief of Medical Affairs at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana (RHI). She also serves as the RHI Brain Injury Program Medical Director and Director of the NIDRR-funded TBI Model System at IUSM/RHI. Dr. Hammond is an experienced researcher who has conducted numerous clinical trials and prospective multicenter studies. She has authored more than 85 peer-reviewed publications. Her excellence in research, teaching, and administration has been acknowledged by receipt of the 2001 Association of Academic Physiatrists Young Academician Award from the Association of Academic Physiatrists and the 2011 Brain Injury Association of America William Caveness Award.

James F. Malec, PhD is Professor and Research Director in PM&R IUSM and RHI, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Mayo Clinic, and Board Certified in Clinical Neuropsychology and in Rehabilitation Psychology. Dr. Malec is currently Co-Director of the IUSM/RHI TBI Model System and directed the Mayo TBI Model System from 1999 through 2007. For the past 30 years, he has worked as a clinician and researcher in neuropsychology and brain injury rehabilitation with a particular interest in postacute rehabilitation and outcome measurement. He has over 130 peer-reviewed publications, and has received a number of professional recognitions including: the North American Brain Injury Society Research Award, and the Moody Prize for Distinguished Initiatives in Brain Injury Research and Rehabilita

Use of Robotic Tools in Neurorehabilitation

Alex Nastaskin, MS, ORT/L, Katherine Scheponik, MS, ORT/L, Joe Padova, MS, ORT/L, Mike Tobin, BS

 Brain injury often results in upper extremity impairment, including weakness, spasticity, impaired range of motion, impaired sensation and impaired motor coordination. Muscle, tendon, and joint capsules may stiffen when held in a shortened position for an extended time. Since spastic or flaccid hemiparetic patients often have difficulty moving an arm, functionality declines in the impaired arm due to learned non-use in favor of the intact arm.

Research suggests that task-oriented training focusing on the practice of skilled and meaningful motor performance is a critical link to facilitating neural reorganization and “rewiring” in the central nervous system (Takahashi, et al., 2008). Robotics can provide an opportunity for a person to engage in a task-oriented, structured, multisensory experience.  For example, the patient may be required to move a virtual object on a screen to a virtual shelf. As the machine detects the patient’s physical movements, a visualization of the moved object appears on a screen, illustrating the accuracy and results of the patient’s efforts in real time. The patient can adjust the effort accordingly and perfect the desired motor pattern, supporting neural reorganization that may allow restoration of movement and functionality in the affected arm. These reliable, measurable robotics programs provide repetition, and the customization options make this intervention available to patients with varied motor impairments.

An increasing number of studies indicate that functional motor improvements largely occur through compensatory strategies rather than actual neurological recovery, particularly within the first few weeks following injury (Kwakkel, Kollen and Lindeman, 2004). For example, according to many upper limb robotics studies over the last decade, subjects typically show substantial improvements when performing functional tasks, while demonstrating little change in impairment measures (Hidler, et al., 2005). Thus, rather than demonstrating actual impairment reduction, patients learn to use their impaired systems more effectively. This is an area where motor control and learning principles may provide a basis for developing more effective treatments. Motor control principles dictate repetition of desired movements with kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback. Robotic neurorehabilitation allows motor learning through practice of a diverse set of repeated tasks with the addition of visual feedback on the individual’s performance.

Following injury onset and during the subacute treatment stage, patients frequently develop maladaptive movement and/or positioning patterns that provide comfort, but impede function as neurological recovery progresses. Robotic neurorehabilitation can promote un-learning of these maladaptive movements, which is particularly important, as sub-optimal positioning may cause soft tissue shortening or stiffening—another obstacle to recovery. If a desired movement can be attained with practice, robotic intervention can provide a platform to help patients replace adverse positioning and non-functional movement with goal-directed movement. One evidence-supported example of this process is constrained-induced movement therapy (CIMT) (Peurala, et al., 2011).  In CIMT, the intact arm is constrained and patient must complete tasks with his or her affected arm. Robotic neurorehabilitation provides a similar approach with the additional application of resistive, assistive and gravity-eliminating forces. This promotes isolated and purposeful movement patterns, customized to the patient’s level of impairment.

A distinct advantage of robotic therapy is the ability to customize task demands, track progress, and make adjustments according to the patient’s improvement. The amount of assistance provided by the robotic orthosis can be modified as patient strength or mobility improves, to facilitate enduring gains. A spring-activated arm exoskeleton orthosis can partially relieve the upper limb’s weight, enabling the patient to initiate goal-directed movement while engaged in a virtual task or doing other tasks designed to incorporate elements of functional arm motion (Gijbels, et al., 2011). For some patients with perceptual deficits, visual scanning may impact how far they can move the affected arm. By enlarging objects and making the work space smaller (or less visually busy), patients with perceptual impairments associated with brain injury may more easily initiate active, goal-directed movement. Working in an environment with minimized distraction, patients can sustain their attention towards a task for longer periods of time, which can lead to more active participation.

A body of evidence demonstrates that following brain injury people retain the ability to generate accurate motor images of actions they cannot perform (Decety and Ingvar, 1990) and that mental practice of motor skills can improve actual performance (Jackson, et al., 2001). Common cerebral motor representations are activated when imaging and planning voluntary movements (Sirigu, et al., 1995). Combining robotic and mental imaging techniques integrates sensorimotor and cognitive stimulation. Thus, robotic orthoses can move a patient’s arm passively and/or provide assistance for active movement, creating an opportunity for kinesthetic and proprioceptive activation. Simultaneously, mental imagery applied during the robotic-assisted motion focuses the patient’s conscious attention on the desired motion. For example, reaching for a cup is an automated – mainly subcortical – activity for people without impairment. Focusing the patient’s conscious attention on the movements involved in reaching and grasping is crucial in order to help reacquire motor representations. 

Case Study 1:
Mrs. P., a 66-year-old female with status post left CVA and right hemiparesis was admitted to outpatient occupational therapy. She presented with a variation of flaccidity and low muscle tone throughout the right upper extremity.  Tactile sensations were intact and there was moderate-intensity pain of the right rotator cuff musculature. During her initial evaluation, Mrs. P. displayed no signs of active motion with her right upper extremity and demonstrated severe difficulty completing upper extremity dressing due to right shoulder pain.  Mrs. P. began twice weekly, 30-minute sessions of robotic arm training using a full-Mrs. P., arm spring-assisted exoskeleton orthosis. After two weeks of robotic training, Mrs. P. began to initiate active isolated motion with right shoulder horizontal abduction, adduction and elbow flexion. This increased active motion allowed Mrs. P. to recruit shoulder stabilizers, position her right arm with less risk of injury and decrease right shoulder pain. Mrs. P. also began actively using her right arm as a gross stabilizer during daily routine tasks.  

Case Study 2:
Mr. R., a 58-year-old male with status post left CVA and right hemiparesis was admitted to outpatient occupational therapy and presented with moderate spasticity and flexion synergy of the right upper extremity.  Mr. R. also demonstrated poor proprioceptive sensation and poor fine and gross motor coordination with minimal, non-functional active movement of the right hand. His therapy plan consisted of robotic intervention twice weekly for at least 30 minutes per session. Robotic training involved the use of a hand exoskeleton that performed continuous passive and active flexion and extension for digits 1 through 5. During robotic training, the therapist asked him to attend to the details of the task, feeling proprioceptive and kinesthetic inputs from the motion, and visualizing the mental actions needed to physically reproduce the movement. After four weeks of combined robotic and mental imagery training, Mr. R. began to display active motion with digits 1-3 and increased grip strength. This gain in active motion and grip strength allowed him to hold grooming articles and use his right hand as an assist to complete self-care routine tasks.

The use of robotics in upper limb neurorehabilitation is transforming the delivery of therapy for people with both acute and chronic challenges.  It also opens the door to new functional gains, preservation of range of motion and increased motor control. Robots are not equipped or intended to replace therapists but can facilitate therapy delivery and increase patient engagement and motivation. As electronic orthoses evolve, the next phase of robotic neurorehabilitation may feature personal exoskeleton devices that allow daily, self-directed practice at home or possibly other primary settings of productive activity. Autonomous practice may improve recovery through higher intensity and repetition of desired motor patterns and overall facilitate more efficient and effective care.

Takahashi, C. D., Der-Yeghiaian, L., Le, V., Motiwala, R. R., & Cramer, S. C. (2008). Robot-based hand motor therapy after stroke. Brain, 131(2), 425-437.
Kwakkel, G., Kollen, B., & Lindeman, E. (2004). Understanding the pattern of functional recovery after stroke: facts and theories. Restorative neurology and neuroscience, 22(3-5), 281-300.
Hidler, J., Nichols, D., Pelliccio, M., & Brady, K. (2015). Advances in the understanding and treatment of stroke impairment using robotic devices.
Peurala, S. H., Kantanen, M. P., Sjögren, T., Paltamaa, J., Karhula, M., & Heinonen, A. (2012). Effectiveness of constraint-induced movement therapy on activity and participation after stroke: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical rehabilitation, 26(3), 209-223.
Gijbels, D., Lamers, I., Kerkhofs, L., Alders, G., Knippenberg, E., & Feys, P. (2011). The Armeo Spring as training tool to improve upper limb functionality in multiple sclerosis: a pilot study. Journal of neuroengineering and rehabilitation, 8(5), 5.
Decety, J., & Ingvar, D. H. (1990). Brain structures participating in mental simulation of motor behavior: a neuropsychological interpretation. Acta Psychologica, 73(1), 13-34.
Jackson, P. L., Lafleur, M. F., Malouin, F., Richards, C., & Doyon, J. (2001). Potential role of mental practice using motor imagery in neurologic rehabilitation. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 82(8), 1133-1141.
Sirigu, A., Cohen, L., Duhamel, J. R., Pillon, B., Dubois, B., Agid, Y., & Pierrot-Deseilligny, C. (1995). Congruent unilateral impairments for real and imagined hand movements. Neuroreport, 6(7), 997-1001.

About the Authors
Alex Nastaskin, MS OTR/L has over 11 years of experience in both inpatient and outpatient neurological rehabilitation. His specialties include intervention models for right hemisphere stroke population and upper extremity robotic rehabilitation.  He is also certified in Kinesiotaping. 

Katherine Scheponik, MS, OTR/L is an outpatient occupational therapist and has also been a yoga instructor for 10 years with an interest in complementary and alternative therapies for neurological disorders.  

Joe Padova, OTR/L is the long-standing clinical specialist for outpatient neurological rehabilitation at MossRehab regarding upper limb amputee retraining, neurological rehabilitation, kinesiology, orthopedics, splinting, adaptive equipment design in integration of upper extremity robotic trainers for neurologic rehabilitations.

Mike Tobin, BS is an occupational therapy aide with an interest in upper limb robotics and assistive technology.


Brain Injury Professional – Volume 12, Issue 2: Health Care Reform & New Models for Health Care Delivery

Message from the Guest Editor

Although the U.S. healthcare system is the most robust in the world in the areas of drug and technological innovation, it falls short in delivering quality, outcomes, cost, and equity. A study by Donald M. Berwick and RAND Corporation analyst Andrew D. Hackbarth estimated that five categories of waste consumed $476 billion to $992 billion, or 18 percent to 37 percent of the approximately $2.6 trillion annual total of all health spending in 2011. The categories of waste include: failure of care delivery, care coordination, administrative complexity, overtreatment, and fraud and abuse.¹

This less than promising picture receives additional illumination from The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, “Crossing the Quality Chasm”, which describes the U.S. healthcare system as decentralized, complicated, and poorly organized, specifically noting “layers of processes and handoffs that patients and families find bewildering and clinicians view as wasteful.”² In this study, researchers estimate that inadequate care coordination, including inadequate management of care transitions, was responsible for $25 to $45 billion in wasteful spending in 2011 through avoidable complications and unnecessary hospital readmissions.

In light of this continuing situation, the complex challenges of the U.S. health care system demand a comprehensive approach in which value-based models offer a focus on efficiency and collaboration among acute, post-acute, and community care providers. Toward that end, envision a world where individuals with brain injuries or catastrophic injuries have access to a provider team with a team captain that helps navigate them through the often complex and byzantine healthcare maze.

Health care organizations and individual providers alike have come to recognize that effective care can best be delivered by collaborative teams of clinicians, with each member playing an interrelated and vital role. Creating the bridges from acute care to the community setting requires a renewed commitment to overcome the traditional model of fragmented care. It also requires shared goals, agreement about the outcomes that matter to all stakeholders (patients, families, providers, hospitals and payers), and a dedicated team with the agility and flexibility to help individuals navigate across the continuum of care as new challenges arise. At the same time, and as an integral part of this patient centric approach, the accompanying financial model must reward all of the stakeholders as equitably as possible in order to be sustainable.

Because health care is complex and constantly changing and because one model or care pathway does not apply to every individual with brain injury, an important key to this effort is the effective acquisition and evaluation of data. Whether health related, delivery process-related, or financial, the data have to be collected, analyzed and shared for managing care, improving processes, and generating knowledge. Without these fundamental changes, health care will continue to underperform, cause patients unnecessary harm (from fragmentation of care and delay to treatment), and potentially bankrupt personal and governmental resources.

What we can reliably anticipate is that the efforts expended in designing, planning, and executing improvements in how we take care of our patients will not come without sacrifices and a considerable amount of hard work. Innovation inherently involves experimentation and learning from experience in general and trial and error in particular. Accordingly, the contributing authors to this special issue have worked tirelessly to understand, diagnose and redesign the delivery system they’re part of with the goal of providing better care for individuals with brain injury over the course of their lifetime. Simply put, they recognize that part of the healthcare system as “sick” and in need of special care.

I am honored to be the Guest Editor for this special issue for the Brain Injury Professional in which “Values” and “empathy” are central themes. We are presenting perspectives and examples of ongoing collaboration to redesign health care to better meet the complex needs of individuals with brain injury. The featured article by professors Elizabeth Teisberg and Scott Wallace titled “Value for Patients” frames the important concept of “value” in the specific context of brain injury care. The accompanying article, “Outcomes and Empathy”, is a provocative look at examining whether or not we are asking the right questions about outcomes. It is our hope that these two articles will help direct our readership to reflect on the “why”, before getting into the “how” of healthcare re-design.

We also highlight innovative models of collaboration between academic systems, as well as recent creative partnerships such as NeuroNet, developed specifically to address the long term and complex needs of individuals with brain injuries across the continuum of care. Finally, we look at the emerging and successful concierge model of care and integrated practice model for worker compensation as concepts could be highly relevant in designing services for individuals with brain injuries.

Once again, I am pleased to be part of this special issue of the Brain Injury Professional and trust the information provided will be both of interest and value. I would like to extend a special acknowledgment to Tom Emswiller for his assistance with this issue.


Featured open access content

Value for Patients
Elizabeth Teisberg, PhD and Scott Wallace, JD, MBA 

Initiatives Toward Creating A True Value Equation for Brain Injury
By Richard V. Riggs, MD and Pamela Roberts, PhD

Modifying Post-Reform Care Delivery Models for Workers Compensation
Randall D. Lea, MD, MPH

Content currently available in print only

Measuring What Matters: Connecting Excellence, Professionalism and Empathy
By Scott Wallace, JD, MBA and Elizabeth Teisberg, PhD

Neuro-Net: A Continuum of Care Pilot for Persons with Catastrophic Injury
By Ann Perkins, MA, MFT and Debra Braunling-McMorrow, PhD

Getting What You Pay For: Concierge Medicine
By Tim Nguyen, MBA, Voltaire Escalona, Paul Hunter, Spencer Jaffe and Benton Giap, MD, MBA


Initiatives Toward Creating a True Value Equation for Brain Injury



Changes in healthcare reimbursement mechanisms will require innovation to adequately care for future brain injury populations. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 20091 included the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act which provided incentives to encourage electronic health record implementation. This was intended to address the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology. The Affordable Care Act2 established the Center for Innovation to explore new care models. Taken together, these initiatives established a foundation of technology infrastructure as well as exploration of more at risk and bundled payment mechanisms. This article will explore the impact of these changes as well as describe a specific example of how two academic medical rehabilitation providers collaborated to respond to the new challenges.

Brain Injury Throughout the Continuum

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics,3 traumatic brain injury accounts for approximately 2.5 million emergency department visits, hospitalizations or deaths. Data on the leading causes of brain injury from 2006-2010 include falls (40.5%), assaults (10.7%), motor vehicle traffic (14.3%), struck by/against assault (15.5%) and unknown/other 19%.3 The data revealed that there are three peaks in the age distribution for brain injury occurrence including children aged 0 to 4 years old, adolescents aged 15 to 19 years and adults age greater than 65 years.4 Regardless of the etiology, brain Injury rehabilitation necessitates a comprehensive interdisciplinary model of delivery through the continuum of care. This includes addressing medical, physical, cognitive, communication, psychosocial, behavioral, vocational, educational, accessibility, and leisure needs in order to minimize the impact of impairments and reduce secondary complications as well as activity limitations, improve participation in the community and impact quality of life.5

Brain injury rehabilitation services can be offered in a variety of care settings including the acute hospital, inpatient rehabilitation, skilled nursing facility, home health, outpatient rehabilitation, residential, and the community. Traditionally, Medicare has provided separate reimbursement to providers at each level of care during a single illness or course of treatment. Often patients with complex acute or chronic conditions are not prepared for the transitions that occur during the course of treatment. This approach may result in fragmentation of care including limited coordination across providers and healthcare settings as well as increased risk for readmissions and compromise in patient health. Since poor care transitions affect patients, families, clinicians, and the health care delivery system, an increasing number of health care organizations and professional organizations have identified alternatives to improve patient care and safe discharges as core care transition issues that require performance measures and public reporting requirements. Quality incentives are also based on care from providers versus quantity of care provided. Historically, commercial payers and workman’s compensation payers have attempted to address this fragmentation with assignment of case managers for catastrophic cases to administer benefits in a cost efficient manner.   With the recognition of disincentives for coordinating care across settings, MedPAC6 recommended creating a program to test the feasibility of bundling payment policies that would pay for care that spans across provider types and would hold providers accountable for quality over the course of the episode of care.

Bundled payment initiatives assist in the alignment of provider incentives across the continuum of care (e.g. acute care hospital, post-acute settings, physicians and other healthcare providers). Under a bundled payment arrangement, Medicare pays a single provider entity an amount intended to cover the costs of providing the full range of necessary care.   In the following example, bundled payment begins with an index hospitalization and continues for a defined period of time. The index hospitalization is the first event in the sequence that begins an episode. All care that is related to the index hospitalization over the selected period of time is funded as part of the bundle. Within the Affordable Care Act2 are proposals to bundle acute and post-acute payment into one payment for services. This would redesign the way in which brain injury rehabilitation would be managed from the time of injury through the various post-acute care venues. New post-acute protocols and workflow dynamics will need to be developed in order to communicate continuum wide care coordination.

To illustrate, a patient with traumatic brain injury with a moderate Glasgow Coma Scale at the time of the initial hospitalization may require a short stay in the intensive care unit followed by stabilization on the neurological floor. If fluctuating levels of arousal and fatigue with therapy treatment are present, the case manager for the clinical team would consider the optimal venue for the next phase of rehabilitation. This patient has a tracheostomy and gastrostomy tube, desaturates with upright activity, and requires hourly suctioning due to pneumonia secretions. Given these patient characteristics, admission to a long term acute care facility where specialty-care services for patients with serious medical problems that require intense, special treatment for an extended period of time is warranted.

The goal of the long term acute care hospital (LTACH) will be to have the patient stabilize medically, initiate progressive therapeutic interventions including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology to increase the patient’s ability to participate in an intensive rehabilitation program. As the medical issues resolve and tolerance improves, the patient’s ability for full participation in an intensive inpatient rehabilitation level of care evolves. The next step in the continuum would likely include admission to the inpatient rehabilitation facility. During this phase of recovery, the tracheostomy and gastrostomy tubes would be weaned, patient’s functional level would likely improve in daily activities and mobility however with continued deficits in cognition. Transition to home with an intensive home and community program would be justified. Another proposed option is a redesign of care structure such as a continuing care hospital for transitions between levels of care. In a continuing care hospital, after discharge from the acute care hospital, the LTACH level services and inpatient rehabilitation services would be deployed to the patient as the patient’s medical and functional levels improve without physically moving the patient. Under bundled payment, this type of innovative model has the potential to improve efficiencies, effectiveness, and patient/family experience.

In this example, if the bundled payment was based on ninety days, at the point of discharge to home, it would be approximately two-thirds of the way through the bundle. This would leave only one third of available days, not to mention where one would be with the cost portion of the bundle. A recent literature review on the cost of mild and moderate traumatic brain injury demonstrated the paucity of research in this area.7 Considerations for designing a traumatic brain injury bundle would include: intensity of medical care, need for medical oversight, level of participation, cost of readmissions from any setting balanced with outcome, family support, serving clients needs would drive transitions and movement through various venues of care.

Integration of catastrophic care throughout the continuum of care has significant opportunities to enhance patient care while reducing cost. Bundling has the potential to incentivize various providers to determine the most effective and efficient mix of services and settings of care in order to reduce fragmentation, encourage collaboration and improve accountability and quality of care.

Health Care Partnerships Throughout the Continuum

Health system initiatives are focusing on the patient’s journey following the acute care hospital in order to bridge inpatient to community care to prevent readmission and address total cost of care including penalties and incentives directed at coordination and collaboration of care. Resource allocation requires selection of the appropriate treatment level for the severity and phase of brain injury recovery. Partnerships with other providers in local communities may require innovative information transfer for proper care to be provided. For example, having access to transition of care documents, providing view access in the electronic health record to care partners, and enhancing patient portals are effective methods. Many home health providers and skilled nursing facilities have operationalized these avenues to obtain patient specific information to ensure continuity for the patient. Another tactic is to deploy staff such as nurse practitioners or physicians to the home or skilled nursing facilities to assure carry-over of the established plan of care. This may be beneficial for brain injury patients with low arousal. A short term skilled nursing facility placement may be utilized until the patient improves to the level appropriate for an inpatient rehabilitation admission. Medical management and oversight for these complex brain injury patients and prevention of secondary complications in skilled nursing facilities requires close medical management and therapy intervention with progressive intensity.

Developing creative options that deliver superior value is a tactic that has been utilized effectively for inpatient rehabilitation units and hospitals. One mechanism to align common goals can be a joint venture or new entity. Recently, two academic inpatient rehabilitation providers were faced with a high cost position, a lack of inpatient rehabilitation bed availability as well as an increasing demand for rehabilitation service delivery. Challenges for resolution of the problem included high project costs for any expansion, a lack of suitable space to accommodate growth and the inability to lower the overall cost of care under an expansion scenario. These institutions were brought together by a third party who proposed a joint venture to create a world class rehabilitation institute. Potential strengths included collaboration between two Level I trauma centers, the ability to leverage academic expertise and infrastructure, community benefit for rehabilitation capacity and enhancement of program specialization, concentration of high caliber resources and technology, and the ability to lower the cost position. The potential benefits included a decrease in the total cost of care for the rehabilitation population, the ability to contract at a lower cost per patient per day, expanded bed capacity, improved ability to provide specialized population specific care, and consolidation and improved efficiency of services.

The overarching goal of the current healthcare reform is the provision of high quality and efficient care that results in desired patient outcomes, referred to as the Triple Aim.8 The Triple Aim goals of improving individual health care (patient experience of care), improving population health and lowering costs were established to motivate health care systems to stretch beyond traditional clinical roles and work towards broad population health management. In the example previously illustrated, the patient experience will improve with expanded services in a facility dedicated to comprehensive rehabilitation recovery and restoration of function. The cost structure in the new hospital will significantly lower the per capita expenditure for the patients served. The concentration of rehabilitation services has the ability to elevate the expertise in the brain injury and other impacted populations in this community. A recent study sponsored by the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association (AMRPA)9 compared over 5,000 matched brain injury cases treated at inpatient rehabilitation facilities matched on demographics and clinical severity with similar patients treated at skilled nursing facilities. For the brain injury population this study revealed a significantly reduced mortality and reduced readmission rate but at an increased overall cost. In order to continue to admit patients to inpatient rehabilitation for these critically important services with demonstrated improved outcomes, lowering the cost per patient per day, ensuring access to rehabilitation care and enhancing outcomes for this population is crucial.


There has been varied support from payers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for rehabilitation in areas outside the traditional levels of care. Innovative outpatient day treatment programs as well as cognitively based home and community programs may provide alternatives in the provision of efficient care. Unfortunately many of these options are limited due to financial barriers or in the ability to exist as an option in today’s health care environment. In a bundled payment system, these could potentially be developed and integrated into a seamless system of care for the patient with a brain injury. Health care systems of care will continue to explore the value equation and determine solutions based on the market and patients within their community. Regardless of the participants, there is a need for action and innovative solutions including redesigning of brain injury care in order to meet the new value goals.



About the Authors

Dr. Richard Riggs is Vice President and Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) for the Cedars-Sinai Health System, Chairman and Medical Director Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Chief Medical Strategy Officer of the soon to be opened, California Rehabilitation Institute.  Dr. Riggs serves on the CSHS Board of Directors as well as on the Executive Committee of the Board.  Dr. Riggs is a Professor at CSMC and UCLA.  Dr. Riggs has published and lectured nationally and internationally on clinical and administrative rehabilitation research and topics, as well delivered lectures on physician leadership skills and health informatics. Dr. Riggs completed his medical education at the Medical College of Georgia, and he trained in Philadelphia in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania.

Pamela Roberts, PhD, MSHA, OTR/L, SCFES, FAOTA, CPHQ, FNAP is the Program Director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Neuropsychology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California.  Dr. Roberts has worked throughout the continuum of care as a clinician, administrator, educator, and researcher.  She teaches at local universities, a national FIM trainer and a CARF surveyor.  She is involved in the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, American Occupational Therapy Association, and National Quality Forum committees, past chair of the California Hospital Association (CHA) Center for Medical Rehabilitation Services and past member of the Post-Acute Care board.  Dr. Roberts is Chair Elect of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine Stroke Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group and ACRM Program Committee Chair.  Additionally, she is Chair-Elect for the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).  Dr. Roberts has published and provided workshops and consultations on rehabilitation and health services research topics regionally, nationally, and internationally.


1. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Pub. L. No. 111-115, 123 Stat. 115, 516 (February 19, 2009).

2. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pub. L. No. 111-148, 3502, 124 Stat. 119, 124 (2010).

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Injury Prevention and Control:  Traumatic Brain Injury.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web on March 21, 2015:  http://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/get_the_facts.html.

4. Faul M, Xu L, Wald MM, Coronado VG.  Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States:  Emergency Department Visits, Hospitalizations and Deaths 2002-2006 Atlanta (GA):  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2010.

5. CARF Medical Rehabilitation Standards Manual.  Brain Injury Specialty Program.  Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities: 2015.

6. MedPAC.  Report to Congress:  Medicare and the Health Care Delivery System.  Approaches to bundling payment for post-acute care (Chapter 3).  June 2013.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web on March 21, 2015:  www.medpac.gov/documents/reports/jun13_ch03.pdf?sfvrsn=0

7. Humphreys J, Wood RL, and Macey S.  The costs of traumatic brain injury:  a literature review.  Clinicecon Outcomes Res 2013; 5:  281-287.

8. Berwick DM, Nolan TW, Whittington J. The Triple Aim: Care, health, and cost. Health Affairs 2008; 27(3):759-69.

9. DaVanzo JE, E-Gamil A, Li JW, Shimer M, Manolov N, and Dobson A.  Assessment of Patient Outcomes of Rehabilitative Care Provided in Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities (IRFs) and After Discharge Final Report 2014; Dobason DaVanzo & Associates, LLC:  1-46.




Dr. Richard Riggs is Vice President and Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) for the Cedars-Sinai Health System, Chairman and Medical Director Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Chief Medical Strategy Officer of the soon to be opened, California Rehabilitation Institute.  Dr. Riggs serves on the CSHS Board of Directors as well as on the Executive Committee of the Board.  Dr. Riggs is a Professor at CSMC and UCLA.  Dr. Riggs has published and lectured nationally and internationally on clinical and administrative rehabilitation research and topics, as well delivered lectures on physician leadership skills and health informatics. Dr. Riggs completed his medical education at the Medical College of Georgia, and he trained in Philadelphia in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania.

Pamela Roberts, PhD, MSHA, OTR/L, SCFES, FAOTA, CPHQ, FNAP is the Program Director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Neuropsychology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California.  Dr. Roberts has worked throughout the continuum of care as a clinician, administrator, educator, and researcher.  She teaches at local universities, a national FIM trainer and a CARF surveyor.  She is involved in the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, American Occupational Therapy Association, and National Quality Forum committees, past chair of the California Hospital Association (CHA) Center for Medical Rehabilitation Services and past member of the Post-Acute Care board.  Dr. Roberts is Chair Elect of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine Stroke Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group and ACRM Program Committee Chair.  Additionally, she is Chair-Elect for the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).  Dr. Roberts has published and provided workshops and consultations on rehabilitation and health services research topics regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Value for Patients

By Elizabeth Teisberg, PhD and Scott Wallace, JD, MBA

Value, achieving improved health outcomes for the money spent, is the goal of health care.1 When Redefining Health Care published in 2006, critics worried that value was a utopian goal and better outcomes would always require higher spending.2 While the goal of higher value is now widely accepted, a persistent question arises: “Value for whom?” The unequivocal answer is value for patients.

Patients are the reason that clinicians practice and that hospitals and health plans provide services.3 The existential purpose of health care is to serve patients, improving their quality of life and dignity of death. Health care achieves this by helping patients retain or regain capabilities and freedom from pain. Improving meaningful outcomes for patients is the calling of clinical practice. Better outcomes for patients also increase the value of health care, aligning value with professionalism.

Everyone agrees that U.S. health care spending is too high. There are many ways to reduce it. The value perspective identifies organizational innovations that drive better outcomes for patients in ways that reduce costs. Increasing value is surely preferable to increasing limitations on care or access.

The Right Kind of Competition for Care Delivery Innovation

Innovation in most sectors of the economy drives remarkable improvements. Consider changes in phone service over the past 15 years. Cameras, airplane boarding passes, apps, web service, credit cards and a flashlight are all innovations. Imagine health care delivery with that pace of innovation, adoption and diffusion of new technology and services.

The talent and passion of clinicians, and the importance of their mission, should trigger dramatic innovation that increases value for patients and families.

But it hasn’t, as evidenced by persistently poor national health outcomes, errors, disparities, unwarranted variation, waste, limited access, and rising spending. Instead of innovation, competition in health care delivery services focused on increasing the volume of services provided while battling over who bears the costs. The question of “value to whom” is a vestige of that cost-shifting mindset – a focus on dividing value rather than creating it.

Increasing value for patients unifies the goal by recognizing both the purpose of care and the reality of cost. This aligns interests. Patients benefit from better health outcomes, clinicians pursue their professional calling and provider organizations fulfill their service mission. Payers seek more efficient ways of achieving good outcomes and society efficiently realizes the wellbeing and productivity of good health.

Competition to create more value for patients fuels a positive innovation dynamic. The biggest value increases occur when health outcomes improve in ways that reduce the costs of care. For example, a stroke patient who does not become paraplegic has lower long-term care costs because of the better outcome. Frail, elderly patients whose tailored care allows them to live safely at home can avoid the higher costs of nursing homes. Because living in good health is inherently less expensive than living in poor health, there are myriad ways that better outcomes also lead to lower costs. A patient with diabetes whose condition does not progress to kidney failure or amputation will have lower costs due to good outcomes. Early diagnosis of colon cancer allows effective treatment that is less invasive and less expensive. Flu can be accurately diagnosed on a video call, enabling convenience, faster treatment and recovery without exposing others.

Transformation of Goals from Volume to Value

Traditionally, value was not health care’s goal. U.S. health care was assumed to be very good, but too expensive. From that perspective, policy aimed to reduce spending, hopefully without sacrificing quality. Simultaneously, clinicians were held morally responsible for doing as much as possible for every person in their care. Payers pressured providers for lower prices per treatment, but spending rose because the volume of services grew. In the volume based system, “good” physicians were identified by effort –actions taken and hours worked, not results. Leaders were not focused on how to improve outcomes in ways that reduce costs.

The transformation to a value mindset begins with the simple observation that patients and families seek health, not more treatment. No one seeks an extra, unnecessary colonoscopy. The purpose of health care is to improve health – cure disease, repair injury, preserve capability, and to enhance wellbeing throughout life. Treatment is an intermediate good, a means to better health. Patients would prefer health without invasive tests and recovery without hospitalizations, surgery or the side effects of medications. They endure treatment in pursuit of regained capabilities, comfort and calm.4

Measuring Outcomes that Matter to Patients

The results that determine value are the outcomes that matter to patients in the medical circumstances they face, and the total costs of achieving them. These results need to be measured at the level where value is created for patients – in helping a person who is receiving care for a specific set of health circumstances. At the level at which value is created, patients can readily identify the outcomes that matter. For patients with a particular condition, a handful of functional outcomes describe significant differences in their quality of life – during the care experience and after completion. Patients with head and neck cancer are concerned with survival and with retaining the abilities to swallow, eat and talk. Patients with asthma want to breathe comfortably, avoid emergencies and be able to exercise. Patients with diabetes are often concerned about being able to walk or dance, to see and to make love. Measuring a relatively small set of functional outcomes, not hundreds of processes, allow teams to accelerate improvement of those results and support professional excellence. Because patients care about multiple aspects of their results, value is multidimensional. Patients with advancing prostate cancer are concerned about survival, continence, potency and depression. The dimensions are usually non-commensurate. The outcomes can be displayed on a diagram, but can’t be added because each outcome might be measured on a different scale (e.g. years, dollars, amounts of pain). Even if the measures were commensurate, different individuals would weight them differently, so there is no one measure for aggregate quality of life outcomes. The multiple dimensions need to be kept distinct so that patients and clinicians can make good decisions and so clinical teams can clearly understand their progress on improving results for patients. Comparing outcomes for different conditions or circumstances often is not meaningful. The results of care for a broken leg can be compared to other care for a broken leg, but can’t be meaningfully compared to the value of delivery of a healthy breach baby or reversing the progression of diabetes. Making comparisons at levels too fragmented or too aggregated to describe how value is created for patients is also unhelpful. For example, quality measured across an entire hospital is too aggregated to be meaningful. A hospital may have exceptional results for breast cancer treatment but consistently below risk-adjusted expected results for kidney transplants. In this case, a single hospital quality score is not meaningful. Comparing fragments of the care cycle is also misleading. Patients and clinicians need outcomes for patients’ full continuum of care, not just for surgery or radiation or chemotherapy or rehabilitative care.

Measure for Improvement, not for Judging

With appropriate risk adjustment, the multidimensional results for patients can be compared across different types of care, different protocols, different clinicians or different clinical teams. By looking at results from many patients, physicians and teams can gain insight on whether their team’s patients fare better or worse than similar patients treated elsewhere or treated with different care processes. Facts are friendly. Sharing outcome data enables learning and improvement. For patients with cystic fibrosis, life expectancy has more than doubled since outcomes have been tracked and compared. If a physician’s patients were not achieving better than average life spans, that clinician could see that and learn from those whose patients had better outcomes over time.5 The inherent professional incentives of physicians and other clinicians are to improve outcomes for their patients; simply put, to be better doctors. Because they appeal to professionalism, data on meaningful outcomes provides stronger incentives than most financial bonuses. Measuring meaningful outcomes inspires learning. Every organ transplant in the U.S. is recorded in a registry maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and a surgeon or hospital cannot get another organ for transplantation unless outcomes for previous patients have been reported. UNOS reports results for every facility and sophisticated risk adjustment enables reporting of whether outcomes exceed or miss expected results. The percentage of kidney transplant patients with one-year graft survival has risen significantly and the variation among teams has shrunk as expertise increases and is shared. In 1989, about 80% of patients’ grafts survived the fist year and 10% of facilities had worse-than-expected results after risk adjustment. In 2013, 95% of patients’ grafts survived the first year and only 2.4% of facilities had below-expected results. The improvement by clinical teams benefits patients, whether or not patients use the data to chose a provider.6 Such comparisons also drive learning about what a person or team does especially well and where improvement is needed. For example, MD Anderson compares functional outcomes for head and neck cancer patients among surgeons. This analysis, combined with observations by nurses on the team, led to the realization that the precise location of a small number of stitches affected patients’ abilities to swallow and eat after surgery. Again, both patients and professionalism were well served

Learning from Positive Outcomes During Care

Outcome measurement can drive improvement during the care process. Clinical psychologists at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center used patient reported functional outcomes to assess the progress during care for their pediatric patients being treated for obsessive compulsive disorder.7 Treatment sessions typically lasted about an hour and the only available assessment tool required considerably longer to administer and score, so they developed a new approach. The primary determinants of success in OCD treatment are control, distress and functioning – essentially questions about whether the child could control the urges of the condition, was distressed by them and could function in everyday activities. The clinicians developed a single-page assessment form that each child was asked to complete before therapy sessions. Brightly colored with a ten point scale that indicates the disease in control in yellow and the patient in control in green, patients were asked to rate their level of mastery over the disease by indicating whether they could play with friends, play video or other individual games, manage the urges of the disease and complete homework tasks. Using surveys collected throughout a full cycle of care (typically 18-24 weeks), the team sorted patients into four groups based on whether there was no, slow, inconsistent or rapid improvement. Further analysis revealed that the patients with rapid improvement were treated using a specific technique of cognitive behavior therapy.8 The psychologists whose patients had achieved the best results worked with others on the staff to achieve consistent practice, and the results were stunning. Shortly after the changes in practice, 65% of patients achieved significant improvements in symptoms after only four sessions. The average number of sessions required for patients to become symptom free dropped to 12, and the rate at which patients dropped out of the program fell by more than half.

Organize Teams around Patient Needs and Medically-Defined Populations

As the CCHMC results demonstrate, a great team dynamic can drive learning, improvement and success. Most health care, however, is delivered by groups, not teams. Often, when a patient presents for care, a group is assembled as needed, depending largely on availability of personnel on-site or oncall. These groups rarely share a panel of patients, so even if some clinicians have worked together, they lack a shared learning process and tight relationships of a standing team.9 Most providers are organized for treating every patient, no matter how unusual the condition. As a result, they are inefficiently structured for the most common needs. Fracturing resources into parts and pieces enables the flexibility to construct a care group for any patient, but patient journeys through this system are inefficient, more error prone and less effective than they should be. Every person is individual, but this does not mean that his or her health care needs are entirely unique. Most people are part of medically-defined segments of the population: for example, they have spinal injury, coronary artery disease, are spry in spite of old age, or are frail with multiple chronic conditions. Even small hospitals have some segments of patients with relatively predictable medical circumstances — an expected number of breast cancer, heart failure or asthma cases. Organizing around medically-defined segments enables efficiency and accelerates team-based learning about improving care experiences and outcomes. Patients of The Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston see a multidisciplinary team of caregivers who share a panel of patients and meet regularly to discuss their care and insights about what works.10 Insights from the Joslin’s methodical learning and consistent processes have been collected and documented to create a franchised model of care. Most care delivery is organized around departments, services, procedures or facilities, rather than for specific patient groups and the integrated, full-cycle care they need. Health care’s well-documented unwarranted variations in care and outcomes11 could be dramatically reduced by more use of standing teams organized around common medical conditions. The starting place is asking what do patients with a particular set of circumstances usually need? For example, what services are usually needed by patients with traumatic brain injury? What services are needed by frail elderly patients who have multiple chronic conditions? The multidisciplinary team for a segment of patients needs to include the professionals from whom the patients typically receive care. Having the commonly needed services in the same hospital or health system isn’t enough. There needs to be an identified team for the segment of patients. Every clinician need not be full-time with this patient segment, but when a frail elderly patient needs a nephrologist, there should be someone who regularly works with the frail elderly team. If those identified team members are not in the same network or the same location, they still need a consistent, ongoing relationship to improve outcomes and reduce costs as a team. Many organizations start the process of creating teams by assembling some of the people who contribute to care in a particular pathway. The clinicians’ early tasks are to identify consistent and safe care pathways, improve patients’ experiences and results, and streamline processes to cut costs. The need to cut costs often provides the sense of urgency, but the more inspirational opportunity is to understand the potential to accelerate improvement in outcomes.

Teams Enable Payment Aligned with Medical Success

Provider organizations that have teams defined around patient segments are better prepared for new payment models. Team-based payment can improve alignment of medical and financial success. While some organizations pay teams for care bundles, it’s more common to achieve team-based payment through salaried physicians whose performance reviews depend on health outcomes, not just volume. Either way, payment alone does not create relationships and team dynamics, and because sharing bonuses or total reimbursement among colleagues is almost unimaginable without good working relationships, team-based care needs to be established well ahead of payment changes. Co-location of people is a good first step. While the impacts of prepayment for providers and clinicians remains unclear, capitation’s success will depend on how organizations manage the changes internally. Most organizations that are already paid via capitation still use fee-for-service payment models internally. This is risky misalignment that can undermine profitability. Prepayment doesn’t automatically improve value for patients. If the prepayment model guaranteed better health outcomes that drove down total spending, integrated provider-payer organizations would already have consistently better outcomes across many services. But tremendous variability persists. To achieve the cost and quality objectives of prepayment, high-value care delivery will need to become the norm. Pre-payment will reduce margins unless it is matched with value-based strategy. While creating high-performing teams is daunting, the task is easier when leaders celebrate the professional successes of the teams whose patients have measurable improvements in outcomes and costs. Teams that share the cause and purpose of improving their patients’ outcomes in measured ways will spur a cultural transformation.

Value-Based Strategy Change is hard. Transforming to value-based strategy entails dramatic change. But the status quo is untenable. Leaders have to anticipate the anxiety that change and uncertainty evoke. Individuals and groups will see many potential problems that reorganization may present. But the current organization of non-teams, or of teams not defined around value for patients and families, has bigger problems. The leadership challenge is to hold the old approach to the same standard of critique as the new approach. Recognition of the magnitude of current problems puts the opportunities of transformation in new light. The logic of value-based care acknowledges that health care exists to create value for patients. Measuring that value accelerates improvement, reduces unwarranted variation and disparities in care, and supports the efforts of caregivers. From the perspectives of patients and families, as well as the perspective of clinicians aspiring to excellence, measurement supports success. Understanding the patient and family perspective on their medical circumstances unlocks startling opportunities to create value. Starting from the patient perspective is relatively rare in health care, though this design-thinking approach is now common in most sectors of the economy. Ideas will need even deeper motivation than focus group results and analysis of patient satisfaction. Innovative care models will add services in today’s invisible gaps, coordinate care across boundaries that currently looked impermeable, and remove obstacles that patients face but the delivery system does not see. Value-based strategy supports the calling of medicine to improve patients’ health. The transformation from volume to value is not about administratively directed care and confusion. It is about caring teams improving what matters most to their patients.

 About The Authors

Elizabeth Teisberg, PhD, is a Professor of Community and Family Medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, New Hampshire. She is also a Senior Institute Associate at Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. Her expertise is in Strategy and Innovation, particularly in health care delivery. Professor Teisberg wrote Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition on Results with Professor Michael E. Porter. Since its publication, she has worked internationally to inspire and implement innovation for dramatic improvement in health care value.

Scott Wallace is a Visiting Professor of Family and Community Medicine at Geisel. His research focuses on employee health as a business strategy and on redefining chronic disease care and transforming health care from volume-based to value-based. He was the first CEO of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology. In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed him as the chairman of the Commission on Systemic Interoperability, an eleven person federal commission created to develop a national health care IT strategic plan, holds a juris doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School, a master’s degree with honors in business administration from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke University.

  1. Porter ME, Teisberg EO, Redefining Health Care, Boston MA, Harvard Business School Publishing 2006.
  2. Reinhardt UE, Porter and Teisberg’s Utopian Vision, Health Affairs Blog, October 10, 2006 (http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2006/10/10/health-reform-porter-and-teisbergs-utopianvision/).
  3. Organizations must capture a portion of the value they create, but this issue of allocating profits is a fundamentally different question than for whom should health care create value.
  4. Wallace and Teisberg, “Measuring What Matters: Connecting Excellence, Professionalism and Empathy,” in this special issue, discusses these outcomes during care.
  5. Seven outcome measures and individual facility data compared to the national average and the foundation’s national goal are available at: http://www.cff.org/LivingWithCF/CareCenterNetwork/ CareCenterData/ (no-charge registration is required to search data fields).
  6. The UNOS data are available at http://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/converge/latestData/advancedData. asp
  7. Private communication with Rebecca Kniskern, PhD, Team Leader, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Academic Collaborative Team, Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology Department, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, OH.
  8. Patients were pushed to confront the symptoms of the condition.
  9. Population health models, such as Accountable Care Organizations, often face huge challenges when a newly constructed alliance expects the group to achieve results that one might hope for from a practiced, integrated team.
  10. Porter ME, Teisberg EO, and WallaceS. The Joslin Diabetes Center, HBS no. 9-710-424, 2009, REV. January 25, 2010.
  11. Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care. http://www.dartmouthatlas.org/




Cervicogenic Post Concussion Disorder: A Pain In The Neck

By John Leddy, MD

Joelle is an 18-year-old high school soccer player who sustained a head injury 3 months ago during a game. While going for a header, an opponent’s head struck her on the side of the head and knocked her on the ground. Observers on the sidelines saw how her head twisted to the opposite side prior to hitting the ground. Joelle has no independent recollection of this. All Joelle knows is that she continues to experience daily headaches, dizziness and difficulty with concentration and memory in school despite resting from sports and physical activity since the day of her injury. She has been told that she is suffering from post concussion disorder because her brain is not yet recovered from the injury. Upon close questioning, Joelle says that her headaches began from the top of her neck and radiate to the forehead and that her dizziness is exacerbated by looking right and left. She is having trouble concentrating and remembering things because she has a headache most of the day and she is not sleeping well. She has not tried to return to any physical activity and her parents have asked that the school make accommodates for her. Her brain MRI is normal and she has taken and passed a computerized neuropsychological (NP) test. Nonetheless, she does not feel ready to return to sports or even to recreational activities with her friends.

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The Substance Use and Brain Injury Bridging Project: How to Catch a Hot Potato

By Carolyn Lemsky, PhD, C.Psych.

The Substance Use and Brain Injury Bridging Project (SUBI) grew out of the need to increase the capacity of the health care system in Ontario to better manage a group of clients who were falling into the great divide that existed between community based brain injury and addiction services. At first glance, the SUBI partners: Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto and the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), is an odd pairing — a community-based brain injury provider with only a couple of health care professionals and a large, academic medical center dedicated to additions and mental illness. The important thing about our first meetings in 2004 was that everyone around the table wanted to end the game of referral hot-potato that begins when a complex client is identified as having both a brain injury and problematic substance use. The challenge was to figure out what we could do to create meaningful change without new resources for specialized programming.