Talk With Your MS Doc About Keeping Your Job

(This first appeared as my column on www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

You probably talk about multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms, drugs and therapies when you meet with your neurologist, but I’ll bet that most people don’t talk very much about working. Being able to work, and continuing to hold down a job, is important. I see concerns about this all the time on the online forums where we MS patients hang out. Work should be a part of that medical discussion.

In Europe, two organizations have teamed up to encourage medical providers to speak with their MS patients about working and their jobs, and they’ve created a program help them do that. The Work Foundation and the European Multiple Sclerosis Platform (EMSP) call it “Promoting Positive Work Outcomes for Europeans with MS,” (and I’m sure they won’t mind if this American spreads the word outside of the EU). The groups believe that supporting people in their working lives — something they call “workability” — should become a priority outcome of clinical care. The program focuses on four areas:

  • The work-focused nature of conversations between clinicians and people living with MS.
  • The challenges and barriers faced by people living with MS who wish to find jobs, keep them or return to work.
  • The quality of jobs available to people with MS and the practical steps employers can take to create fulfilling work.
  • The “workability” status, which includes economic, clinical and social benefits for wider society, including healthcare systems, small and big employers, and people with MS as well as their careers.

Talking about workability

An important aspect of this program is getting doctors and others who treat MS to talk with their patients about workability. The coalition’s guide is called “Why and how should HCPs talk to people with MS about work?” and it starts out: “Many people with MS would like to work and see it as a valuable part of their recovery. But they face a number of health and social barriers to achieving this ambition.”

The booklet reviews subjects such as why it’s important for healthcare professionals to talk with their MS patients about work, how to manage their symptoms on the job, and when and how to disclose an MS diagnosis to an employer. Though the guide is designed for medical professionals, it’s also useful for MS patients to read. It also contains lots of facts and conversation-starters.

The working numbers aren’t good

Among those facts: In Europe only 26 to 42 percent of MS patients are working, 60 to 80 percent lose their jobs within 15 years of the onset of MS, up to a third retire early and an estimated 17 percent get fired by their employers. I haven’t been able to locate comparable figures for the United States or elsewhere, but I have to believe they’re no better. Obviously, there’s a need for medical professionals to include a discussion, and suggestions, about how MS patients can handle this “workability” problem in their treatment plans.

Do you have a “workability” experience or suggestion? Please share it in a comment. The more we talk about it, the more we can improve how we all fare in the workplace.

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