So, you’re thinking about applying for disability. The process can be long and complicated, but learning how your doctors (and medical records) fit into the equation will put you one step ahead. Whether you’ve never applied before or you’re filing an appeal, here is the key information you should know about the role doctors play in your disability decision.
Can my doctor put me on disability?
Unfortunately, your doctor can’t put you on disability. Even if your doctor diagnoses you with a disability, you won’t automatically receive benefits. You need to apply for benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA), and only the SSA can approve or deny your disability claim. However, your doctor and their medical team are important allies in strengthening your application. You’ll still need to see them regularly, building documentation and a complete medical record of your health condition.
The SSA can't approve a disability insurance application unless they get your medical records. You should at least be talking with your primary care physician (PCP) about your condition, and seeing a specialist will strengthen your case.
What is the best type of doctor to see for disability benefits?
It’s important to see your PCP regularly, but seeing a specialist will also help your disability case. Specialists will have a deeper understanding of your health conditions and their impacts on day-to-day life. The SSA is also more likely to approve your disability claim if you’re seeing a specialist who can vouch that you’re working to manage your condition.
Keep in mind that medical requirements are the same whether you’re applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If you don’t know which you need, we’ve broken down the differences between SSDI and SSI.
How to ask your doctor about disability
Start by letting your doctor know you’re filing for disability. Instead of framing it as a question (like “Do I have a disability?” or “Do I qualify?”), let them know that you’re applying and you’ll need their help.
Once you’ve let your doctor know, they will likely refer you to a social worker, case manager, care coordinator, or patient navigator on staff. These individuals should know more about how to begin filing a claim. They will also be able to help you get the necessary paperwork from your doctor.
It’s helpful to educate yourself on the basics of the disability process versus seeking advice solely from a doctor, who may be well-intentioned but misinformed on how the disability system works. Most doctors are not experts in the disability process. Their focus is on the medical world and filing a claim is largely a legal matter.
If my doctor’s not an expert, who should I talk to?
If you’re applying for disability or if your claim was denied, the best thing most people can do is work with a lawyer. Disability lawyers are experts on the process and can significantly increase the chances of winning your claim.
A lawyer will walk you through the long application process and help you understand what you need to do, both individually and with your doctor. They will clarify what type of documentation you need from your doctor, saving you the headache of too much back-and-forth with medical staff. They can also advise you on kinds of treatment that may help your case.
To get you started, Atticus can give you free legal advice on how to strengthen your medical evidence (and can find you an experienced disability lawyer, if you need one). You pay nothing for our services, and you’ll only need to pay the lawyer if they win your case. Fill out our 2-minute questionnaire to see if you qualify.
Do I need my doctor to sign a letter that confirms my disability?
A letter from your doctor that confirms their diagnosis of your medical condition can strengthen your disability case, but there’s no need to bring a sample letter to your doctor. The SSA may even send your doctor a medical source statement form, which asks them to explain your health conditions. The medical office staff or your social worker can handle gathering and sending statements and other necessary paperwork after you file your application.
Again, it’s important to go to your doctor with a general understanding of what you’ll need when applying, so that you and your doctor are on the same page. That’s where finding a good disability lawyer comes in. Legal support will give you the necessary information to make the most of your conversations with a doctor.
Will I need to see an SSA doctor?
The SSA may ask you to see one of its own medical examiners for a separate consultation. This is a common practice, so there’s no cause for alarm. You should receive a phone number and address in a letter from the SSA. Use that contact information to set up your appointment. Do your best to be at the exam on time and to cooperate fully with the examiner. If you need to reschedule, call the phone number from that letter. The SSA also provides this guide to its medical examinations.
Unfortunately, the special examiner may not be an expert on your specific conditions. You shouldn’t rely on this exam to build your disability case. It’s important that by the time you meet with any SSA doctors, you’ve already worked with your PCP and specialists to build a clear medical record.
5 tips for working with a doctor on your claim
In addition to speaking about disability benefits, follow these steps to work most effectively with your doctor:
See your doctors regularly. The very first thing to do is set up regular appointments with your primary care doctor and any specialists you see. This will ensure their awareness that your condition is ongoing and not showing the improvement needed for you to return to work.
Log your symptoms. Logging symptoms is a critical part of filing for disability. It can make your case stronger as well as help your doctor better understand your condition and see patterns and triggers over time. Provide this log to the doctor so that it becomes part of your permanent medical record, which will carry more weight with the SSA than just a personal log. Tracking your symptoms digitally also makes them easier to copy into a patient portal or to print and include in a case file.
Talk about your worst days. Your symptoms may fluctuate over time. It’s critical that you talk to doctors about the worst days so they understand the severity of your condition and its impact on your daily life.
Ask your doctor to compile your medical records. If you’re like most people, you’ve switched doctors over the years. Unless they’re all part of the same institution, your records are probably scattered across many different electronic healthcare systems. Your current primary doctor can work with past providers to gather these records, and create a unified medical history.
Check your post-visit summaries. Make sure your doctor is doing their job to chronicle your disabilities and provide medical advice. One way to check that adequate documentation is happening by reading your post-visit summaries — often available through medical portals such as MyChart.
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Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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