Executive summary

People with catastrophic injuries face many long-term challenges in the community as a result of their injury: one of the most problematic can be in returning to work (RTW). It may not only be a significant issue for the person with a catastrophic injury but also for their family, friends, the employment industry, and society. Worldwide mean RTW rates for people with catastrophic injury are approximately 30-40%; however, in Australia the overall mean rate is unknown. Internationally, the best RTW rates reported for moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) come from the UK, Sweden and USA, whilst for spinal cord injury (SCI) they are in Switzerland and Sweden. There are several differences in the way rates reported are calculated such as the time post-injury, making it difficult to definitively identify whether one country achieves better RTW rates than another. Several studies have been conducted to determine the factors which facilitate and limit RTW for people with catastrophic injury. These include having pre-injury employment, age, education, severity of injury, level of cognitive impairment, being functionally independent, fatigue, psychological adjustment to the change, social support and the work environment to name a few. There is a general lack of understanding of the experience of people with catastrophic injury who return to work and, therefore, little known about how job retention can be successful in the long-term.

Four types of VR interventions have been identified to facilitate RTW – 1) program based rehabilitation, 2) supported employment, 3) case co-ordination and 4) hybrid or mixed. An evidence review identified 15 relevant articles and it was found that there was limited high quality evidence to support any type of intervention more effective than the other. There was however moderate evidence identified for the effectiveness of case co-ordination for achieving successful RTW for people with moderate to severe TBI and high level evidence for a specialist TBI-VR combination intervention. A reduction in the claiming of benefits after 1 year was also observed. The most promising RTW intervention for people with SCI appears to be supported employment; however, as only one RCT has provided this evidence, further studies are required. Several factors that affect the likely success of RTW interventions were also identified in exploring the research evidence and implications for future research were identified. Substantial research has been conducted on RTW interventions in people with TBI since the late 1980s, however this is not the same for SCI. High quality evidence and transparent reporting of study details are still lacking.

This NTRI Forum aims to enhance understanding of the features of optimal return to work practices following traumatic brain and spinal cord injury and identify barriers and facilitators to their implementation.

Two questions were identified for deliberation in a Stakeholder Dialogue: 1. In the Australian context, what are the barriers to, and facilitators of, application of strategies to optimise RTW outcomes for people with catastrophic injury? 2. How could identified barriers and facilitators be addressed to ensure successful RTW and better retention of people with catastrophic injury?

An accompanying document (Dialogue Summary) will present the results of the deliberation upon these questions

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