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What is a Functional Capacity Evaluation and why is it so important?

By Susan Vanderweert

Your doctor is generally responsible for releasing you back to work when your medical treatment has concluded. To avoid liability and the risk of further injury, a medical release is usually required before you return to work. If your injury was minor and your recovery was complete, it may be relatively easy for the doctor to determine that you are capable of returning to your former job. However, in many cases, it is more complicated to determine just exactly how much work an employee is capable of doing.

Sometimes the doctor will feel comfortable assigning work restrictions based on their own opinion about your physical ability. Often, though, especially with more serious or complicated injuries, doctors prefer to base your work restrictions on a Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE), which is supposed to be based more on science and facts than thoughts or opinions. In those cases, your doctor may refer you for an FCE.

An FCE will help your doctor determine:

  • When it is physically safe for you to return to work
  • When you are physically able to do the same job you did before you got injured
  • How much physical effort you can safely perform at work without reinjuring yourself

What Does a Functional Capacity Evaluation Check For?

FCEs are performed by a physical therapist or occupational therapist. The tests generally last for several hours and involve a number of physical challenges, such as repetitive lifting, bending, walking, and stair climbing. These tests are intended to measure your exact physical strengths and weaknesses and compare them to the actual requirements of your job.

How Some Providers Have Used the FCE Against Injured Workers

Often we have come up against situations where some insurance companies have used FCEs as weapons instead of useful tools in their efforts to try to:

  • Convince the doctor that our clients were faking or exaggerating their injury
  • Send clients back to a job that was too physical for them to handle
  • Release our client from treatment before they were physically ready

When the manager of an injured truck driver tried to get him to go back to work before he felt ready, he asked for a second opinion. That’s when things got ugly and he contacted us. Read Christopher’s story here.

Unfortunately, not all FCEs are created equal. FCE standards vary from provider to provider. Some FCE tests are more accurate than others at measuring a person’s capacity for actual work over an eight- to 10-hour work day. Some FCE tests are not based on scientific standardized methods.  FCEs are not always fair, nor are some FCE providers necessarily unbiased.

Truth be told, we have firsthand knowledge that some FCEs have been intentionally manipulated by a small number of FCE providers for the purpose of denying the injured worker continued workers’ compensation benefits.  The majority of FCE providers that we have seen do attempt to do a fair and reasonable job for their patients. However, it is the small number of unfair FCE providers that can be used as weapons by workers’ compensation insurance companies to try to maximize their profits and deny benefits to injured workers.

Manipulated Tests and Provider Notes

For example, we have seen one FCE provider consistently instruct injured workers to stop the test and take a rest break. Then that provider would write in the evaluation that the person did not give full effort on the test. Another FCE provider has regularly reported that injured workers had been faking or exaggerating their injuries, when other FCE providers and physicians have reached contrary conclusions for the same workers.

On the other hand, the Catch-22 is that if you put too much effort into your FCE test when you are pushed by the FCE provider, you could reinjure yourself.

You can see that, like Christopher, your doctor may rely on the FCE test to release you to return to work before you are ready or without the proper restrictions. At James Scott Farrin, we know who the more trustworthy and reputable FCE providers are and, on the other hand, the ones who may not have your best interests in mind and who may be more interested in results that please the workers’ compensation insurance companies. For these reasons, it is very important to contact the professional team at James Scott Farrin as soon as possible, and be aware of these issues when your doctor starts talking about releasing you from treatment or returning you to work.

How You Can Help Your Case

Remember that your employer and their insurance company may want to get you back to work as soon as possible. Even if it means getting you back to work before you are physically ready. And remember too, your doctor may not necessarily know exactly what your job requires of you physically or understand the laws of workers’ compensation about returning to work.  For example, some doctors may assume that, if an injured worker cannot perform a job after a trial return to work attempt, then workers’ compensation insurance companies will be perfectly willing to restart workers’ compensation checks. That assumption is very frequently inaccurate.

To protect your own interests, it is best to get a written description of your job functions and discuss it with your doctor in detail. If you are having physical issues or taking medications that will keep you from being able to safely perform your job, you need to let your doctor know. Also tell your doctor if your physical issues on the job could create a danger to other co-workers or the public.  No one knows as well as you the physical requirements and dangers of your job.

7 NC Board Certified Specialists in Workers’ Comp Law

More than half of our workers’ comp attorneys are NC Board Certified in workers’ compensation law. Of the approximately 28,000 North Carolina licensed attorneys* only 140 are North Carolina Board Certified Specialists in workers’ compensation law. Seven of them practice right here at our firm.

What does it mean to be board certified? It means you have an attorney who shows special knowledge and proficiency in their specific area of law, having undergone additional training (and other intense analysis) to become certified as a specialist.

Get a FREE Case Evaluation from NC Workers’ Comp Lawyers

We believe in caution and prudence. And there is a lot to know about workers’ compensation law and the system is extremely difficult to navigate successfully on your own.

That is why we urge anyone who has been injured on the job to contact us or call 1-866-900-7078 immediately after their injury. We will try to ensure that all the necessary measures are taken to preserve your right to workers’ compensation benefits and hopefully help you find medical providers who have your best interests in mind.

*  Figures provided by the N.C. State Bar as of December 31, 2016.

Susan Vanderweert joined the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in 2015 handling Workers’ Compensation cases, and is a North Carolina Board Certified Specialist in Workers' Compensation law. Prior to joining the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, she represented the other side – insurance companies and employers – for more than 12 years.

Ms. Vanderweert earned her J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill, where she was Editor-in-Chief for the North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation. She earned a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Duke University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she double majored in Political Science and Communication.

Throughout Ms. Vanderweert’s career she has practiced in the areas of Appellate Advocacy, Insurance Regulatory Matters, and Workers’ Compensation. While she has worked in a variety of capacities – journalism, public relations, and managing a variety of nonprofit professional associations and trade groups – nothing comes close to the satisfaction she gets from helping injured workers.

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