In Good Health

Firms do the work of a company doctor

MBW Report: Health Care

October 08, 1990|By Maria Mallory

When you sit down to talk about occupational health with Dr. James D. Levy, a funny thing happens. There's a real transformation in him. His eyes light up. He moves to the edge of his seat.

He talks a bit faster, pulling supportive material from here and there.

This 50-year-old physician has added an MBA and parlayed that combination to claim the top spot at Baltimore's largest occupational health services firm, CMC Inc. And he's excited about the business.

Just what is occupational health? Dr. Levy explains that it's "working with employers on how they can best take care of their employees."

Taking over where the company doctor left off -- and often replacing him all together -- occupational health firms sponsor a wide variety of services designed to make the lives of employees healthier.

If that objective sounds altruistic, make no mistake; the benefits of occupational health services translate directly into savings realized at the bottom line when healthy workers do their jobs, according to Dr. Levy and other occupational health professionals. That means less absenteeism and more productivity.

"We go about it by talking to business managers in business terminology," explains Dr. Levy. "We don't go in there with a bloody bandage," but rather with strategies that show how to spend dollars better, he says.

As corporate America increasingly recognizes the necessity of hiring the best-equipped job candidates, managers at companies large and small have become keenly aware of the need, in turn, to keep those workers healthy and on the job. That's where occupational health firms step in.

They occupy a multifaceted niche that comprises wellness promotion, problem solving, health education and maintenance. In the greater Baltimore area, firms like CMC, the Baltimore Industrial Medical Center and the Occupational Medical Center contract directly with employers to provide services supplemental to traditional health insurance coverage.

Without realizing it, you may have already had firsthand contact with the growing industry of occupational health.

For instance, if you've recently been hired in a new job, you may have been asked to take a drug test. Occupational health firms routinely administer drug screening for corporations striving to maintain narcotics-free workplaces. The increased recognition of this critical issue has made businesses more cognizant of occupational health providers.

"I think with drug testing, people are going to become more and more aware of what [occupational health] means," says Barbara Grim, coordinator for occupational health services at the Occupational Medical Center in Glen Burnie.

When the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its drug-testing guidelines last year, many private companies followed suit, she says.

In addition to screening for substance abuse, CMC clients may enlist the company to do periodic medical testing for workers exposed to hazardous chemicals or materials at the work site.

"We do a lot of surveillance exams for workers in dangerous environments," Dr. Levy says.

There is also the pre-employment physical. Your new employer may have asked you to submit to a exam to determine your health profile before you started your new job. These physicals "prevent injuries from occurring in the first place, by screening employees to see if they have the necessary tolerance to do the job," says Frank Leone, executive director of the National Association of Occupational Health Professionals based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"With the pre-employment physical, [employers] can screen out the people who will later on down the line cost you money," says Ms. Grim.

An employer contracting with OMC simply sends the job applicant to be examined by the center's doctor. The physician relies on his background in general medicine and his analysis of the physical demands of a particular job. He then compares that to a worker's limitations and strengths, Ms. Grim says.

If, based on his examination the doctor foresees a problem, OMC informs the employer, that "medically, we have found the person to be unfit for the job because of these reasons," which are listed, Ms. Grim says. It is then up to the employer to make the final decision to hire or reject the candidate.

Any medical condition uncovered that would not impact an employee's performance is kept confidential, Ms. Grim says.

"Ethically, we only have to tell the company if it is going to jeopardize the job the worker has to do. For ancillary problems, we suggest the worker follow up with a family physician."

After having been on your job for a while, your new employer may have provided you with an opportunity for confidential counseling for dealing with problems like depression, financial mismanagement or marital and family conflicts.

Generally known as employee assistance programs (EAP), these services are offered frequently by businesses as a discreet way to resolve personal difficulties.

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