Can a Doctor's Letter Win a Disability Case or Get You Approved?

Doctors' letters can help you win your Social Security disability case if they contain information about your specific limitations and are supported by medical evidence.

By , Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Question: Will I Be Approved for Disability With a Doctor's Letter?

If I ask my doctor to write a letter saying that I am disabled and offering proof of my disability, will I be approved for Social Security disability?

Answer

Not necessarily. A letter from your doctor isn't a magic ticket to winning your disability case, especially if it's just a short sentence stating that you're disabled. But if your doctor provides a detailed description of what your limitations are, with reference to specific evidence in your medical record that supports their opinion, you can increase your chances of getting benefits.

How Does a Doctor's Letter Affect Your Disability Case or Get It Approved?

In order to determine whether you're disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) looks at your medical records for evidence of limitations you have, physical or mental, that affect your ability to work. While the SSA gets advice from its own medical consultants who can help make sense of the technical language used in your records, the claims examiners reviewing your file often have to make an educated guess about your health restrictions.

Having a letter from your doctor that explains medical terms and translates them into limitations that examiners can understand helps avoid incorrect guesses. The SSA values the opinions of doctors who have been treating you consistently in the area of their specialty.

What Is the Importance of the Doctor's Letter?

Generally, your disability file will contain multiple medical opinions about your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflects the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work setting. Social Security uses your RFC to determine what kinds of jobs, if any, you can perform.

Opinions about your RFC can come from several sources, such as Disability Determination Services, a consultative examination, or a medical expert. But these sources often disagree as to the extent of your limitations—likely because they don't see the whole picture of your medical history.

So when a doctor who's been treating you for a long time and who can provide special insight into your condition has an opinion about your limitations, the SSA is more likely to give the opinion "greater weight"—meaning that they'll agree with your doctor instead of other sources. (20 CFR § 404.1520c.) If your regular doctor thinks you have more restrictions than doctors who've only seen you once, Social Security will take that into consideration when determining your RFC.

How to Make Sure Your Doctor's Letter Helps Your Disability Case

When considering which doctors to ask for a disability letter, choose health care providers (including counselors and therapists) who you're confident will support your application for benefits. You don't want to put yourself in the position of having to explain to an administrative law judge why your treating physician thinks you can lift 50 pounds or perform complex tasks.

A conversation with your doctors should help you determine whether they will write a supportive note. Depending on the relationship you have with your doctor, you might feel nervous about asking them to do "extra work" for you. The following tips can increase the chances that your doctor will write you a helpful letter.

Schedule a Time to Talk About the Disability Letter With Your Doctor

Finding time outside of your regular appointments to talk with your doctor about your disability claim can be a daunting task. Doctors are busy, and you don't want them to quickly glance at important paperwork. Make sure you have your doctor's full attention by scheduling an appointment to discuss writing a disability letter. If you already have an upcoming appointment, consider bringing a sample RFC form so your doctor has a template to work with.

Let Your Doctor Know About Your Limitations

Before your appointment, make a list of all the medical problems—physical and mental—that are keeping you from working. Many people assume that their doctors already know what daily activities they're struggling with, but what you talk about during a doctor's visit doesn't always paint the whole picture.

A doctor will likely notice on examination that you have reduced grip strength from carpal tunnel syndrome (for example), but they might not be aware that you struggle to button your shirt or tie your shoes.

Make Sure Your Doctor Has All Relevant Medical Information

If you recently started seeing a new medical provider who hasn't had the opportunity to review your previous treatment records, you should bring a copy of those records with you when asking for a doctor's letter. Opinions based on missing, outdated, or irrelevant information won't have much sway with Social Security.

Ask Your Doctor If They Support Your Limitations

After reviewing your medical records and discussing your activities of daily living with your doctor, you should have a good sense of whether they're sympathetic to your disability claim. You can then ask your doctor if they're willing to write an opinion supporting your limitations. Hopefully, the answer will be "yes."

If your doctor agrees to write a medical source statement (Social Security's official term for a doctor's note), make sure that the statement includes details about the physical or mental limitations that result from your medical condition. Good medical source statements include:

  • the date the doctor began treating you and the frequency of your visits
  • references to objective medical evidence (such as an X-ray, MRI, or nerve conduction study)
  • specific, quantitative restrictions on what your limitations are (distance you can walk, time you can stand, amount of weight you can lift, number of tasks you can do), and
  • reasoning about why the evidence supports the doctor's opinion on your restrictions.

It's important to make sure that the doctor's letter reflects their own opinion about what you can and can't do. While your input is crucial in order for the doctor to get a better sense of what your restrictions are, most of the value of a doctor's letter comes from their experience translating medical findings into functional limitations. For example, your doctor should be able to explain why your sciatica prevents you from sitting for longer than one hour or how your depression interferes with your work attendance.

Manage Your Doctor's Expectations

Some doctors are reluctant to write a disability letter because they think they'll be asked to testify in court or otherwise get wrapped up in legal proceedings. If that's the case, you can reassure your doctor that once they've completed the letter, they don't have any additional obligations for your disability claim. But if your doctor seems less than enthusiastic about writing a letter or indicates that they're opposed to disability benefits in general, seek a different opinion.

What Does a Helpful Doctor's Letter Look Like?

Most disability attorneys are overjoyed when a client's doctor provides a comprehensive medical source statement. Here's an example of what such a doctor's note might contain:

Sample Doctor's Note for Disability

Additional Resources to Help You Get a Disability Letter From Your Doctor

While doctor's letters from treating providers are favored by Social Security, they can be difficult to get even in the best circumstances. You can use the following resources to make the process go more smoothly:

You might consider hiring an experienced disability attorney to help you get a doctor's note. A lawyer can gather necessary evidence for your doctor to review, follow up with the doctor's office to make sure that the letter was completed on time, and submit the letter to the Social Security Administration on your behalf.

Updated September 6, 2023

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you