After you apply for Social Security disability, you'll want to submit a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment that has been prepared by one of your doctors to support your case. An RFC is a detailed report that discusses the limitations you have because of your condition and how the limitations affect your ability to do certain work-related activities. (You can learn more about the importance of RFCs here.)
Unfortunately, some doctors are unwilling to help their patients by completing RFC forms; this can make it difficult for you to get disability benefits. But, you might be able to convince your doctor to help you, depending on the reason for their reluctance.
When filing for Social Security Disability benefits, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor to talk about your disability. Sit down with your doctor and explain to them the impact your disability has on your day-to-day life and on your ability to perform your normal activities.
It's important to explain to your doctor that you aren't requesting an opinion about whether you are disabled. You could say something like, "I know Social Security decides who is disabled and you have no control over that. And I don't even know if I qualify for disability. But I need your help in giving Social Security accurate information so I can receive a fair evaluation." Your doctor may be more willing to help if they know you won't blame them if you are later denied.
If your doctor agrees with your limitations, ask them to write a statement to Social Security tying your limitations to the medical evidence in your file. For example, "My patient, Ms. Jane Doe, has severe osteoarthritis affecting both hands and wrists, which has been confirmed with X-rays and on clinical examination. She has poor grip strength, she can't make a tight fist, and she can't handle objects smaller than a quarter. Stiffness and pain in her hands and wrists limit her to lifting and carrying no more than 15 pounds."
Social Security will give more weight to this type of opinion, which shows how and why you would be limited from performing work activities, more than an opinion that just says you can't work, without any further explanation. Ultimately, it's for Social Security to decide if you cannot work, not your doctor.
There are many reasons why doctors refuse to fill out RFC forms. Here are some examples of common reasons doctors won't help their patients with disability forms.
Unclear expectations. Frequently doctors refuse to help because they don't understand exactly what's expected of them. They may think the forms you need to have filled out will be lengthy and complicated.
Because disability claims often end up at the hearing level, some doctors may worry that they will be called to testify on your behalf or otherwise caught up in lengthy litigation.
Some doctors are concerned that their reputations could be adversely affected if Social Security disagrees with their opinion.
Personal opinions. Not everyone agrees with the federal disability program. This means that some doctors refuse to help you because they don't want to "support" what they perceive as an entitlement program. In these cases, the physician may feel reluctant to label you as disabled, knowing that it may result in an approval of benefits.
Medical opinions about your disability. Sometimes doctors won't complete RFCs because they don't think the patient is disabled. In these cases, sometimes a physician will complete the form but state that the individual has no limitations in their ability to work.
Lack of time. Other doctors are simply busy and think that filling out forms for you will take up too much time.
Money. Some doctors will complete the forms only if they're paid for their time. Most doctors who charge ask for a reasonable fee for filling out an RFC form.
Policy. Some clinics and hospitals have a policy not to fill out forms.
The solution to unhelpful doctors depends on the reason they won't help you.
Unclear expectations. If your doctor doesn't fully understand what is expected of them, you should ask your attorney or advocate, if you have one, to contact the doctor's office to explain. If you don't have an attorney or advocate, reassure the doctor that once the form is completed and given to Social Security, the doctor's involvement ends. You could also tell your doctor that their opinion on your disability will in no way impact their license or practice.
If your doctor doesn't want to help because they think the process is too time-consuming, show the doctor an RFC form. RFC forms are usually only two or three pages long and only require the doctor to check certain boxes about your limitations. They can generally be completed during a normal appointment, as long as the doctor is familiar with your condition.
Personal opinion. If your doctor doesn't want to complete disability forms because they disagree with Social Security's disability program, it may be hard to convince them to cooperate. In these cases, you can ask the doctor to simply check the boxes that accurately reflect your limitations, without making a statement about your disability.
It can also be helpful to tell your doctor if you are applying for SSDI as opposed to SSI. SSDI benefits are based on a long work history, during which you had to pay taxes into the system, as opposed to SSI, which is need-based.
If your doctor continues to refuse to help you, you may have to consider seeing another doctor.
Medical opinions about your disability. Unfortunately, if your doctor won't fill out any forms because they think you are not disabled by your condition, it may be difficult to convince them to complete an RFC for you. If your doctor feels you can work, try to figure out why they think that. It may help to provide the doctor with statements from your employer or co-workers that describe any work-related limitations they have observed in you. But if the doctor won't change their mind, you may have to see another doctor.
Money. Some doctors will refuse to fill out an RFC without a fee. Depending on the importance of the doctor's opinion and the fee amount, it probably makes sense to pay for the RFC assessment. Most attorneys or advocates (if you have one) will pay the fee for you, with the expectation that you will reimburse them at the close of your case, either out of your own pocket or out of your disability back-payment.
Policy. If your clinic has a "no forms" policy, the office staff will likely refuse to help you with the form. You might have a better chance of getting your doctor to cooperate if you make an appointment just to have your form filled out.
The short answer is yes. Your doctor can refuse to help because they're under no obligation to complete disability forms. Doctors and doctors' offices are, however, required to hand over copies of your medical records, which may contain statements about your ability to work, if you, your representative, or Social Security requests them. If your doctor or doctor's office refuses to hand over your medical records, you can ask the administrative law judge (ALJ) assigned to your case at the hearing level to issue a subpoena.
If your doctor won't help you by filling out your disability forms, you may need to see another doctor for an assessment. But beware of "doctor shopping." If you see multiple doctors in an effort to find a supporting physician, Social Security will view this negatively in your case.
If you must see another doctor, be sure to take all of the medical records related to your case to the doctor for their review. This will provide the objective medical evidence the doctor will need to make their assessment and form their opinion about your limitations.
Convincing an uncooperative doctor to help you with your disability forms can be difficult. But it's best to have the opinion of a doctor who has treated you for a long time—if the doctor is supportive of your claim.
Experienced disability attorneys and advocates have practice dealing with doctors and explaining the disability process and expectations. This can make it easier to get the information you need from your doctor to help win your case.
Updated January 20, 2022