The error of using returns-to-work to measure the outcomes of health care

Marjorie Baldwin, William Johnson, Richard J. Butler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


This article uses data from The Survey of Ontario Workers With Permanent Impairment, the world's largest survey of injured workers, to show that, as currently used, return-to-work is a misleading measure of the effectiveness of health care. The article discussed examples of two serious limitations on the use of return- to-work to measure the outcomes of health care, where health care refers to all the medical and rehabilitative services provided to worker following a workplace injury. The first limitation is that return-to-work, like many other outcomes of health care, is influenced by factors that are not directly related to health care. Using a logit model to estimate the determinants of first absences from work after an injury, we find that socioeconomic characteristics, economic incentives, and job characteristics have a significant influence on return-to-work. The second limitation on return-to-work as an outcome measure is that the first return- to-work after an injury, like a hospital discharge, frequently marks the end of only the first of several episodes of work disability caused by the original injury. Using first post-injury returns-to-work as a proxy for recovery, we would assume that 85% of the Ontario workers recovered from their injury when, in fact, 61% had subsequent spell of work disability. We identified four mutually exclusive patterns of post-injury work and work disability. Multinomial logit estimates of the determinants of the patterns show that health care is only one of several influences on return-to-work. The results also demonstrate that if return- to-work is used to measure outcomes, it must be evaluated over a time horizon that permits multiple spells of work disability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)632-641
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Industrial Medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1996


  • outcome measure
  • permanent impairment
  • return- to-work
  • workplace injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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