If you're applying for Social Security disability benefits, getting your doctor's support is critical. One of the first things claims examiners, disability attorneys, and administrative law judges look for when reviewing an application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a doctor's letter detailing the applicant's limitations.
Doctors tend to be fairly busy and are often reluctant to volunteer for additional tasks, including writing letters and filling out forms on behalf of Social Security disability applicants ("claimants"). But don't get discouraged—if your doctor believes you're disabled and is willing to support your case in writing, you should ask for a detailed statement to this effect.
Getting SSDI or SSI benefits isn't as simple as asking a specific doctor to write a letter saying that you're disabled. Individual doctors don't specialize in disability—while Social Security will use medical consultants and medical experts to help decide disability claims, they're hired as independent evaluators and won't advocate for you.
Fortunately, you don't need to go to a special doctor to get approved for benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) values opinions from doctors whom you've seen regularly, especially if they specialize in the area of medicine that treats your condition. You can help strengthen your claim with a well-crafted medical source statement from your doctor.
The best way to approach finding a doctor to help with your claim is to ask the doctors you're currently seeing to write a medical source statement. If your doctors have treated you regularly for at least one year, the SSA can take their opinions especially seriously (called giving them more weight), as long as they're not at odds with the rest of your medical records.
Consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor to talk about your disability. The appointment can be part of your regular visits, or it can be on a separate date. Because doctors are frequently swamped with paperwork, having an in-person talk about your disability claim can increase the chances that your doctor will complete a medical source statement.
During your conversation with your doctor, explain that you're not expecting them to write a note for you to "get out" of working, or to testify in front of a judge. Talking with your doctor about your limitations can give you an idea whether their letter will be supportive or not, and your doctor might be more willing to help if they know that they aren't expected to get involved in lengthy legal proceedings.
In order to help your disability claim, your doctors' statements must be detailed and must refer to the medical evidence in your records. That way the SSA can see how and why your doctors came to their opinion.
Short, general statements (such as "My patient is 100% disabled and unable to work") aren't helpful, because your doctor isn't likely to be familiar with the SSA's legal requirements for disability. To be effective, a doctor's opinion should contain the following:
You can help make the process easier for your doctor by providing them with a downloadable residual functional capacity (RFC) form here. Your doctor may ask you to make an appointment with them before filling out the form, and some doctors will charge a small fee.
Learn more about what a good disability doctor's statement looks like by visiting our article on how to make sure your doctor's letter helps your disability case.
If your doctor is on the fence about helping with your application for benefits, you might be able to convince them if you explain in clear terms what a good doctor's statement looks like and how important it is to the SSA. You can read about how to overcome common doctors' concerns in our article on getting cooperation from your doctor for your disability case.
Ultimately, your doctor is under no obligation to provide an opinion. If you've asked your doctor to write you a letter and they said no (or gave you the run-around), it might be time to search for a new medical provider.
Here are some considerations to keep in mind when looking for a new doctor:
Getting a doctor who is a good fit for your condition and your claim might take some time. But avoid going through doctors too quickly ("doctor shopping") in an effort to find one who will write you a letter in favor of your disability application. The SSA can view your case with suspicion if it seems like you're looking for a doctor who will support an otherwise unconvincing claim.
Ideally, you'll have access to a doctor who you've seen consistently for at least a year, is familiar with your condition, and is ready to provide a statement about your limitations. Unfortunately, many claimants bounce between doctors or don't have the resources to establish an ongoing relationship with a doctor.
If you apply for disability benefits and you haven't had a lot of regular medical treatment, the SSA can send you to a consultative examination (CE) on the agency's dime. (This is probably the closest equivalent to a "free disability evaluation" available for claimants.)
The usefulness of a CE varies between claimants. For example, somebody over the age of 50 who has inconsistent treatment for back pain might benefit from a CE report that limits them to sit-down work based on an old MRI showing severe arthritis. But because a CE is only a short, one-time evaluation of your physical or mental limitations, it doesn't paint a full picture of your restrictions. That's why disability attorneys strongly recommend seeking medical treatment in addition to the consultative examination.
For more information, see our article about getting free or low-cost medical care to beef up your disability claim.
Updated February 17, 2023