Find Out What Type of Medical Consultant Reviewed Your Social Security Disability Claim

Only certain types of doctors (medical consultants) are allowed to make disability decisions on certain types of claims.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

After you apply for Social Security disability, your application is sent to a state agency where your claim will be decided. These agencies are often called Disability Determination Services, or DDS. A disability examiner at DDS will request your medical records and complete a medical write-up of your claim, along with a tentative decision. A medical consultant will then review the medical issues in your file and confirm whether you should be approved for benefits.

What Is the Role of the Medical Consultant in Social Security Disability Cases?

The medical consultant, who is sometimes called the state disability unit physician, is supposed to be the one deciding whether your impairment meets the requirements of a disability listing or whether your residual functional capacity (RFC) is too low to work any jobs. And the medical consultant should develop your RFC if your condition doesn't meet a listing. But sometimes the examiner creates your RFC. If this happens, the examiner should at least consult the doctor (medical consultant) on the nature and severity of your medical impairments, as well as what kind of additional medical evidence is needed to decide your claim. The examiner is not allowed to make decisions on medical eligibility without consulting the doctor on these points.

Who Are Social Security Medical Consultants?

Medical consultants work for Disability Determination Services (DDS), the state agency that makes the initial disability decisions, usually as part-time contractors. All medical consultants must be M.D.s, D.O.s, or, for certain medical conditions, psychologists, optometrists, podiatrists, or speech-language pathologists.

Unfortunately, many DDS offices do not have a full range of specialists among their in-house medical consultants. Most medical consultants work in the fields of family medicine, internal medicine, or psychiatry/psychology. While these generalists are often able to properly evaluate the less complicated cases, more complicated cases require specialists or subspecialists. But some DDS offices don't have cardiologists, orthopedic specialists, neurologists, or ophthalmologists on their staff.

Rules on Medical Consultant Expertise

In claims involving cognitive or mental impairments, the evaluation of mental limitations and disorders must be done by a psychiatrist or psychologist, not a neurologist or internist. For instance, if you applied for disability for a traumatic brain injury, a consultant who is a neurologist can evaluate your diagnosis, but a psychiatrist or psychologist needs to weigh in on your resulting mental and cognitive impairments and limitations.

Another Social Security rule is that children's claims for physical disabilities should always be evaluated by a medical consultant who's a pediatrician.

In adult claims for physical impairments, the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn't have any strict rules about which type of doctor should review your claim, but if your case is complex and a specialist or subspecialist didn't evaluate your claim, you can raise this issue on appeal. If you're denied disability benefits by Social Security, check your disability file to see if the medical consultant who reviewed your disability application was the appropriate type of doctor. For instance, an orthopedic surgeon is the best one to evaluate a complex musculoskeletal disorder, and a cardiologist can best assess a serious heart condition.

Under Social Security ruling SSR 96-6p, the administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing an appeal or the Appeals Council must take into account the specialization of the medical consultant who decided your claim at DDS.

How to Find the Medical Consultant's Field of Expertise

You can find the specialty code for the medical consultant who evaluated your claim on Form SSA-831, Disability Determination and Transmittal. This form is the official disability determination document used by Social Security. Your file will have a copy of Form 831, but you won't receive one. To see it, you need to request your file.

Most of the information on the front of the form will be of little use to you because of the number of codes used by the SSA. But the form should contain the name and signature of both the disability examiner and the DDS medical consultant who worked on your claim. The number of the medical consultant's specialty code should be near his or her name or signature. The specialty code information can tell you whether the wrong kind of doctor reviewed your claim.

If you find that the medical consultant didn't have any medical background on your type of impairment, you or your lawyer can raise this issue on appeal.

Medical Consultant Codes

Here is a list of the specialty codes for medical consultants and what type of doctor they refer to.

DDS Medical Consultant Codes

1 Anesthesiology 26 Occupational Medicine
2 Ambulatory Medicine 27 Oncology
3 Audiology 28 Ophthalmology
4 Cardiology 29 Orthopedics
5 Cardiopulmonary 30 Osteopathy
6 Dermatology 31 Pathology
7 E.E.N.T. (Eyes, Ears, Nose, & Throat) 32 Pediatrics
8 E.N.T. (Ear, Nose, & Throat) 33 Physiatry
9 E.T. (Ear & Throat) 34 Physical Medicine
10 Emergency Room Medicine 35 Plastic Surgery
11 Endocrinology 36 Preventive Medicine
12 Family or General Practice 37 Psychiatry
13 Gastroenterology 38 Psychology
14 Geriatrics 39 Public Health
15 Gynecology 40 Pulmonary
16 Hematology 41 Radiology
17 Industrial Medicine 42 Rehabilitative Medicine
18 Infectious Diseases 43 Rheumatology
19 Internal Medicine 44 Special Senses
20 Neurology 45 Surgery
21 Neuro-Ophthalmology 46 Urology
22 Neuro-Psychiatry 47 Other
23 Neonatology 48 Speech-Language Pathology
24 Nephrology 49 Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
25 Obstetrics

What Type of Doctor Does Disability Evaluations?

Medical consultants who work for DDS are often a part of the decision-making on continuing disability reviews, where the SSA decides whether you've improved enough to go back to work. Sometimes these reviews are called "disability re-evaluations."

But medical consultants who work for DDS don't handle "disability evaluations," or "consultative exams." Social Security contracts with outside doctors to perform these consultative exams and pays them for each exam.

Similarly, the medical experts who sometimes appear at ALJ hearings aren't Social Security employees either. They are usually retired doctors whom Social Security hires as expert witnesses. They are paid for each appearance.

This article was based on an excerpt from Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, by David Morton, M.D., a former Chief Medical Consultant for Social Security.

Updated December 1, 2022

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