The Social Security Consultative Exam: What to Expect

Learn who performs the consultative examination and what it entails.

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That call from the Social Security Administration (SSA) asking you to appear for a consultative examination (CE) can bring in both a sense of relief and concern in you; relief because you have successfully transited to the next stage and concern because your medical records do not provide sufficient medical evidence for the SSA to make a determination on your disability. The Disability Determination Service (DDS), an agency run by your state (but funded by the federal government) that helps the SSA make disability determinations, will request that you undergo a consultative examination or take additional tests if it does not find the evidence it needs in your medical records, or if the evidence is not up to date. The Social Security Administration pays for all consultative examinations.

What can you realistically expect during a consultative exam?

Who Performs the Consultative Examination?

If your treating doctor (if you have one) has the necessary skills and equipment to complete the exam, the SSA will request that he or she do it, but your doctor is allowed to refuse (and many do). In that case, the DDS will arrange a CE with another doctor. (Also, if the DDS is seeking to clear up some confusion in your treating doctor's report, or if the DDS doesn't trust your doctor, or if you prefer to go to someone new, you will be sent to another doctor.)

All consultative examiners must be licensed physicians (M.D.s, osteopaths, or psychiatrists) in private practice, or under the supervision of a licensed doctor (for instance, an audiologist could test your hearing in conjunction with an examination by a physician).

What Does a Consultative Examination Entail?

The doctor/examiner will ask you about your medical history and your subjective complaints and will conduct a physical examination of you. In addition, the doctor will complete any specific tests requested by the DDS. The examination report from your CE will contain your medical history, the results of a physical examination, your treatment history, and any laboratory findings, as well as estimates of your ability to perform work-related functions.

The CE is an assessment only; the examining doctor will not give treatment advice or an opinion as to whether you should receive disability benefits.

What Is a Mental Status Examination?

The Social Security system calls one type of psychiatric or psychological consultative exam a "mental status examination" (MSE). If you are claiming a mental impairment, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, the DDS may send you for an MSE. At an MSE, the psychiatrist will test your intelligence, memory, concentration, judgment, and your ability to follow directions. You may be asked to take an IQ test or other neuropsychological tests. (Read more about other mental consultative exams.)

There is no reason for you to be stressed about an impending CE or MSE, but at the same time, know that it's essential for you to go to the exam. (If you refuse to go, the SSA will make a determination based on the medical evidence currently in the file, and it will likely be a denial.) You can expect the examining doctor to typically take about ten days to send the CE report to the DDS.

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