Disability Determination And Impairment Rating


One significant component of patient care is determining a patient’s disability level and impairment rating to determine what disability services they can receive. The first step to creating an accurate patient evaluation is ensuring that healthcare professionals understand the difference between "impairment" and "disability." An impairment can be understood as any deviation or loss of body function or structure.[1][2] Disability is characterized by limitations or reductions in the individual’s ability to participate in their activities of daily living (ADL) due to a disease or health condition.[1][3] It is important to understand there is no definite relationship between disability and impairment. An individual may have significant impairment, such as an amputated arm, but would not be considered significantly disabled because they are still able to engage in their daily tasks successfully. Alternatively, an individual may have a minor impairment that causes significant limitations for that person’s daily activities. For example, an individual with arthritis in their knee cannot tolerate a full day of work, causing them to lose employment. Because impairment and disability vary for each case, health care providers are encouraged to consider disability in terms of a spectrum of ability to function and rate a patient’s impairment depending on how the impairment impacts the patient’s ADL participation.[4][5][6]

Issues of Concern

For individuals to receive aid from disability services, they must establish their impairment or disability through medical evidence. This means that without the evaluation and assessment of a healthcare provider, individuals may not qualify for disability aid.[3][7] Therefore, healthcare professionals must understand how different patients might be eligible for disability aid. Part of the difficulty with disability determination is that multiple services provide disability aid, and each service works differently. For example, the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines disability aid based on its definitions of impairment and disability. For the SSA to recognize an impairment, the impairment must be medically determined through accepted diagnostic methods. This means using valid and reliable methods or assessments through a licensed provider.[7] For a disability, the SSA requires that a patient’s activity engagement limit must be expected to continue, or must have already continued, for a full year.[3] Other disability providers, such as workers’ compensation, state disability programs, and private disability insurance policies, all have different qualification requirements and award disability benefits differently.

Though many disability service providers use the guidelines established by the American Medical Association’s Guide to Permanent Injury, some disability providers choose not to use them because of concerns about the accuracy of these guidelines.[1][8] Without a universally recognized way of determining disability aid, it is up to health care providers to understand the different disability services and to perform comprehensive evaluations to ensure the best patient care possible.

Clinical Significance

Though the qualifications for different disability services vary, the assessment process is similar. An impairment rating is likely to include a physical or psychological examination, an assessment of causation, and a credibility assessment. It is important to mention that the credibility assessment is not a character judgment about the patient but rather an assessment of the consistency of the allegations to determine an accurate depiction of the patient’s condition.

Some organizations use Functional Capacity evaluations, though there is mixed evidence about the effectiveness of these evaluations.[9] Other services have specific assessments and require that authorized agents administer the evaluations. For example, the Work Disability Functional Assessment Battery (WD-FAB) is a specific assessment created for workers' compensation evaluations.[10]

Nursing, Allied Health, and Interprofessional Team Interventions

Disability service providers determine from which agents they accept an impairment rating. Many systems require providers with a physician-level license, though some accept third-party evidence from physical therapists, occupational therapists, and similar providers. Regardless of who is evaluating or providing evidence, health care professionals need to understand the difference between impairment and disability. Evidence shows that disability and impairment are distinctly separate factors. Evidence also suggests that considering disability as a separate factor from impairment may lead to a better understanding of individual cases for disability determination.[5]



Donald D. Davis


9/26/2022 5:58:53 PM



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Amdur MA. Disability Determination Under Social Security: Increasing Rates of Approval. Community mental health journal. 2019 Jan:55(1):38-41. doi: 10.1007/s10597-018-0334-9. Epub 2018 Sep 17     [PubMed PMID: 30225578]


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Goldman HH, Frey WD, Riley JK. Social Security and Disability Due to Mental Impairment in Adults. Annual review of clinical psychology. 2018 May 7:14():453-469. doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050817-084754. Epub     [PubMed PMID: 29734828]


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Jette AM, Ni P, Rasch E, Marfeo E, McDonough C, Brandt D, Kazis L, Chan L. The Work Disability Functional Assessment Battery (WD-FAB). Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America. 2019 Aug:30(3):561-572. doi: 10.1016/j.pmr.2019.03.004. Epub 2019 May 11     [PubMed PMID: 31227131]