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Disability Benefits for Physical Conditions: The Important Difference between Objective Findings and Subjective Complaints

Posted by Foster Law on August 15, 2013

Disability Benefits for Physical Conditions: The Important Difference between Objective Findings and Subjective Complaints

Many benefits payable under the Washington State Industrial Insurance Act are contingent upon the existence of “objective findings.” For example, when completing an Activity Prescription Form (APF) to certify temporary total disability benefits (a.k.a. time loss compensation), attending physicians are required to provide the Department with “Key Objective Finding(s)” from examining the injured worker. A blank APF can be downloaded here: http://www.lni.wa.gov/FormPub/Detail.asp?DocID=2286. Similarly, any assessment of the extent of an injured worker's industrially-related physical impairment or disability must be supported by medical evidence based at least in part upon one or more objective findings. This rule is summarized in Washington Pattern Jury Instruction – Civil 155.09. The pattern jury instructions can be found on the Washington Courts website: http://www.courts.wa.gov/index.cfm?fa=home.contentDisplay&location=PatternJuryInstructions.

Fortunately, the law also provides that a physician need not relay solely upon objective findings. If there is at least one objective finding, then a physician may also consider subjective complaints. This is very important because most injured workers define their symptoms and conditions in terms of subjective complaints.

Therefore, in order to properly certify an injured worker's disability or assess the extent of the injured worker's permanent impairment from an industrial injury or occupational disease, a physician must understand the legal definition of an “objective finding” and clearly identify the objective findings that support the physician's certification of disability or impairment assessment. The definition of “objective findings” is simple and straight forward. However, it is frequently misunderstood and misapplied in the workers' compensation setting. Washington Pattern Jury Instruction – Civil 155.09 provides the legal definition of “objective findings”:

Findings of disability that can be seen, felt, or measured by an examining physician are called objective findings.

That same pattern jury instruction also provides the legal definition for “subjective complaints”:

Statements of complaints by the worker made to a physician are called subjective complaints.

All too often we hear arguments that examination findings such as reduced range of motion, tenderness or other sensation, abnormal reflexes, and even muscle spasm are not objective findings because they are based upon a patient's volitional activity. Nonetheless, the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (5th Ed.) outlines the testing methods and proper instruments that must be used to identify findings during an examination, and these findings are, in fact, seen, felt, and/or measured by the examining physician. In the legal sense of the term, they are “objective.”

The importance of properly distinguishing between objective findings and subjective complaints is critical in workers' compensation claims. Misunderstanding and misapplication of these terms can have longstanding and devastating effects for an injured worker.

At Foster Law, P.C. we are expert, we are fierce, and we are compassionate. Our team offers decades of experience to helping literally thousands of injured workers obtain the benefits that are so crucial to maintaining their welfare and that of their families. If you have any questions or concerns about the difference between objective findings and subjective complaints, we invite you to contact us. Initial consultations are complimentary. Don't leave your workers' compensation claim to chance; consult with experts.

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