A New Ergonomist for a New Century

Ergonomics January 29, 2019

A New Doctor for a New Century

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a true 21st century practitioner in Dr. Jamie McGaha (OTR, CHT, CEAS, OTD, COMT). As a distinguished member of The Back School faculty, she has brought with her up-to-date approaches to the broadening fields of Ergonomics and healthcare. First, a little about her esteemed background is in order.

Dr. McGaha earned her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy from the venerable Washington University in St. Louis, MO. While there, her research focused on Ergonomics and upper extremity disorders. She’s a certified orthopedic manual therapist and a member of the American Society for Hand Therapists. Her research is published in the peer-reviewed journals Applied Ergonomics and The Journal of Hand Therapy.

As a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD), Jamie McGaha is steeped in the Biopsychosocial Medical Model first proposed via peer-review by the late George Engel MD (University of Rochester) at the end of the 1970’s. This advanced model of medicine later became the foundation of Integrative Medicine, introduced by Andrew Weil MD through the University of Arizona’s Medical School in the 1990’s.

Dr. Weil’s groundbreaking Program in Integrative Medicine has since graduated some 1,500 physicians. Its alumni have themselves built the Integrative Medicine programs at the 65 top medical schools in the nation. Dr. McGaha’s practical knowledge and deep understanding of the Biopsychosocial Medical Model makes here both a New Doctor and a New Ergonomist for the New Century.

“The mind-body connection is so important.”

In our interview, Dr. McGaha spells out the common overlap between Occupational Therapy (OT), Certified Hand Therapy (CHT) and Ergonomics. As is so often the case in clinical practice, there’s a great deal of intersection. She applies all three (OT, CHT and Ergo) disciplines in the dual services of both prevention and treatment.

Dr. McGaha explains how integrating prevention (through Ergonomics) into her clinical skill set allows her to provide patients with tools to avoid reinjury post therapy. Now ergonomically equipped, this understanding gives patients a chance to assimilate back into their broader roles in the workplace and in their homelife.

Rather than simply focus on a snapshot of someone’s transient injury, Dr. McGaha’s clinical perspective is cast broadly over a client’s lifespan. She sees her role as facilitating her patient’s restoration back into a fully functional life, blending all elements of living successfully into seamless recovery. This means calling forth the transformative influence of Integrative Mind-Body Medicine, first proposed in the Biopsychosocial Medical Model.

“It’s a huge benefit to use psych and brain components to make physical changes possible. Diaphragmatic deep breathing and visual imagery are things I find very effective.” Dr. McGaha stresses that her clients must be able to bring this back into their lives and not leave it behind in the clinical setting. Such is the essence of successful reintegration.

“We’re seeing that people suffering from depression have higher levels of chronic pain. They statistically suffer more musculoskeletal and neurological issues. This can lead to insomnia, which itself feeds into physical components and impedes clinical progress.” In a self-perpetuating feedback loop, it all affects interactions with other human beings outside the clinic.

Whether at work or at home, the client’s inner state radiates outward and rebounds inward. Fully fruitful restoration is more than merely a physical phenomenon. All biological, psychological and social aspects of the complex organisms we call human beings must be coaligned for true rehabilitation to be realized. This integration is equally true when applied to preventive Ergonomics as well.

In the working environment, not breaking self-defeating cycles can perpetuate – and elongate – the inactive perceived patient role. Passivity becomes a lifestyle. It directly impacts employer costs by perpetuating employee dependence. Outdated clinical approaches – that incentivize unending treatment over appropriate case resolution – commonly drives this failed scenario. No one wins in the long run.

“We educate workers to how conditions overlap and interact.”

When advising workers (or patients) to avoid or reduce problems associated with musculoskeletal conditions, Dr. McGaha offers sound nutritional advice in the true Integrative Medicine form. For instance, she may suggest research-supported advisement on dietary choices that support optimal neural health, speeding recovery and bolstering resilience.

As a staunch proponent of proper hydration, Dr. McGaha enthusiastically instills in workers and clients an appreciation for its role in preserving and restoring healthy connective tissue. This understanding is clearly implicated in management of WMSD. Inadequately hydrated connective tissue is often less resistant to repetitive stress. An ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of cure in this case, both at home and at work.

Likewise, diminished or inadequate hydration – as Dr. McGaha also points out – not only affects physical, but cognitive performance as well. When observed through the lens of onsite Environmental Health and Safety, the implications of dehydration become alarmingly obvious. Dehydrated workers may be more accident prone, driving up risk exposure.

As for activity or exercise, Dr. McGaha again recommends accessibility. “You don’t need to be a triathlete or run a marathon. Go for a walk. Throw a ball. We were made to move.” These are principles she applies in the workplace and the clinic. “My cumulative trauma patients are often given a cardio or aerobic component to their care and recovery. Clinically, I want to get blood flow to damaged areas to jump start the healing process.”

In terms of worker and patient stress management, once again Dr. McGaha’s advice is accessible and can be summarized in a single word: “Breathing.” She adds “Control is such a huge issue in our entire culture. When we feel we have little control, it stresses people out even more.” Breath can be controlled. Introducing self-management to those who previously saw themselves as powerless is, by definition – empowering.

Socially speaking (at many workplaces), a lack of autonomy can often lead to downstream physical effects if not properly addressed. Recognizing this and accepting what can be controlled can help individual workers and clients overcome stressful conditions. Self-reliance leads to resilience. Reactivity gives way to calm responsiveness when challenges arise.

Giving workers and patients tools like breath-work exercises can provide for them a pressure relief valve they can implement anytime and anywhere. An otherwise overwhelming cascade never ensues once autonomic recalibration begins. A stressful worker never snowballs into a full-blown workplace avalanche. It’s truly better to be safer than sorry.

Skillfully weaving elements of nutrition, hydration, activity and stress-control doesn’t happen overnight. Applying these fundamentals for enhancing workforce performance is a subdiscipline of Ergonomics we call Occupational Athletics. A simultaneous mitigation of workplace demands – while augmenting workforce capabilities – brings these spheres closer together toward a more cohesive setting of continuous improvement. 

A New Ergonomist for a New Century

As advanced practitioners like Dr. Jamie McGhaha OTD are proving, the fragmented and isolated approach to Ergonomics, healthcare and medicine of the 20th century is now long outdated. If 65 of the very top US medical schools are moving ahead with The New Medicine, there’s no turning back. Cohesive methodologies are here to stay.

Integrative approaches that recognize and address the conjoined elements of mind, body, social setting, environmental influences and more will only grow in their strategic value. Companies employing these comprehensive methods are at a clear tactical advantage on the international playing field.

Our work, our workforce and our workplaces are fast-moving, fluid and dynamic. Attempting to stuff everything back into neat, isolated silos no longer holds sway. The New Ergonomist must take an all-inclusive view of interconnected elements. In real time, they must recognize how to stimulate adjoining factors in both beneficial and therapeutic ways.  

Ergonomic problems are not static. Nor are their solutions. Building the discipline to broadly observe work flow – cultivating its laminar qualities while diminishing its turbulent ones – will help navigate the upheaval besetting digital age workplaces. It requires a lighter touch and a guiding hand from our New Ergonomists.

We can learn a lot from the New Doctors like Jamie McGaha OTD. They can lead the way to more effective, efficient and fulfilling work lives. This benefits employees, employers and Ergonomic practitioners alike. They have much to show us on this Biopsychosocial / Integrative journey forward.

In this process, The New Ergonomics emerges as a strong ally of The New Medicine, and we all prosper as a society. Let’s get there together, and let’s get to work. Time marches on – and waits for no one. With leadership like Dr. McGaha, our future looks brighter than ever.

Learn more by watching our Ergo2go Podcasts featuring our guest Jamie McGaha OTD and our host Matt Jeffs at –  

Segment A) https://youtu.be/m8PQfrTulDE

Segment B) https://youtu.be/JMq3qcTTpK8

Segment C) https://youtu.be/eOA3R0Jl3Ec

You can reach Dr. McGaha directly by emailing her at: Jamie.mcgaha@healthonecares.com

Learn more – about learning more – at https://thebackschool.net

A little about our author, Matt Jeffs DPT PSM CEAS –

Dr. Jeffs is a health and safety performance advisor for national and international firms. He’s also a seasoned ergonomics educator here at The Back School. Years ago, he excelled as a big-wave surfer and an experienced ocean lifeguard – with numerous rescues – prior to earning both his clinical undergraduate and doctoral degrees in physical therapy.

With well more than 13,000 working hours onsite across US industrial settings performing physical demand analyses, ergonomic analyses, post-offer employment testing, onsite job coaching, onsite injury triage, rapid return-to-work rehab benchmarking and more, Dr. Jeffs is sometimes lightheartedly known as the ‘Mike Rowe (from Dirty Jobs Fame) of Physical Therapy’. You name it, he’s tried it. And he’s learned something from every experience along the way.


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