Should You Trust the Social Security Disability Doctor?

Exams will vary by doctor, but it's generally a good idea to be wary during a medical exam for Social Security.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

After you apply for Social Security disability benefits, Social Security will probably arrange a consultative exam for you with an "independent" doctor. In reality, these doctors are often anything but independent.

While they're not technically employees of the Social Security Administration, these doctors need to stay in the agency's good graces if they want to continue receiving lucrative consulting work. That means they can be extremely skeptical of claims of disability, even when the evidence would be more than enough for most other medical professionals.

Should you trust Social Security's consulting doctor? The answer is no. Here's why.

What's Wrong With Consultative Exams?

Disability lawyers and advocates will tell you that Social Security's consultative exams are almost always hurried and less than thorough. Some disability claimants (applicants) even complain that the doctors are rude or don't accurately document their reported symptoms.

For example, a claimant might mention that they experience severe lower back pain several times a day, especially when sitting for more than 30 minutes or lifting grocery bags. The doctor might record this as follows: "Patient can sit with occasional breaks for up to eight hours without pain. Patient can do moderate lifting without pain."

If you complain that your medication frequently leaves you feeling fatigued, don't be surprised if the consulting doctor writes: "Patient seemed bright and alert. No apparent issue with fatigue."

In addition, doctors who examine claimants for SSDI and SSI disability cases will sometimes go out of their way to make notations in their examination reports that aren't helpful to a claimant's case. For example:

  • "Patient appeared pain-free."
  • "Patient was able to get on to the exam table without difficulty."
  • "Patient brought a cane into the office, but didn't appear to need it."

Even patients who are in pain are sometimes reluctant to express how badly they feel to people they've just met, even if those individuals are doctors. The simple act of getting onto an examination table doesn't mean someone isn't in pain or that they don't have mobility problems (some people simply try to do their best at all times, and even hide their pain). And, regarding the last item, there are many patients with severe back problems who don't need the use of a cane at all times, but like to have it nearby.

The Real Purpose of Consultative Medical Exams

Why do disability claims examiners send claimants to consultative medical exams? The most common reason is that they don't think you're disabled but they need recent medical evidence (not older than 30 or 60 days) in order to deny you disability benefits.

Claimants are often sent to a consultative doctor just to have one symptom checked or one test done, such as a straight-leg test. (That is why many consultative exams only last five to ten minutes.) For instance, if a straight-leg test comes back negative and a positive test is required for a disability listing, Social Security can then deny you benefits.

What to Tell the Doctor at Your Consultative Exam

When you go to a consultative exam for Social Security, know that the doctor is not on your side and may be trying to collect information to deny your claim. Be very wary of what you say, because your words and actions can be used against you.

Above all else, don't minimize your condition. You won't be doing yourself any favors if you downplay the severity of your pain or other symptoms. If, during the examination, the doctor asks, "How does it feel when I do this?" explain exactly where the pain occurs and how intense it is.

The doctor might ask what you can and can't do in terms of your daily activities. If you have "good days and bad days" with your symptoms, explain how you feel on your bad days. After all, those are the days that will prevent you from working.

Of course, you need to be honest, and certainly don't be tempted to exaggerate your symptoms. But most people actually err in the opposite direction: they minimize their condition out of embarrassment or fear that they'll be seen as a "complainer."

Finally, if you're worried that you'll forget to mention something important to the consulting doctor, make a list before the appointment. Include all the things you struggle with on a day-to-day basis, from shopping and preparing meals to lifting, standing, sitting, and walking.

How to Fight Back Against an Unhelpful Report

What can you do if Social Security's consulting doctor doesn't think your condition is serious? Two things.

First, hire a disability attorney to represent you. At your appeal hearing, your attorney can poke holes in the consulting doctor's report, and present reasons to the judge why the report should be given little weight.

Second, obtain as much medical treatment as you can for your condition, including objective testing (such as MRIs, scans, x-rays, and blood tests) where appropriate. Also be sure to ask your doctor to support your disability claim by writing a letter or completing a residual functional capacity (RFC) form.

Consider Contacting an Attorney

Make no mistake: Social Security's consulting doctor is not on your side. That's why it usually makes sense to hire an experienced disability attorney to represent you. The disability claims process is complicated, confusing, and sometimes seems like it's stacked against you. Hiring a lawyer can tilt the scales back in your favor.

Updated December 21, 2021

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