VA Weighs Improvements to Disability Determination Process

Because of the long process of diagnosing traumatic brain injury, the VA evaluates its process and provides recommendations on how physicians can better diagnose veterans.


The severity of traumatic brain injury (TBI) is typically defined at the time of the initial injury, but a diagnosis may not come for months or even years later. Given the complexities of diagnosing what might be a slowly revealed condition, with signs and symptoms that may manifest over time; the need for self-report of symptoms; and the time that might have elapsed since the original injury, a diagnostician needs not only to have experience with TBI but to stay abreast of the state of the science.

As of now, only health care professionals in 4 specialties—neurologist, neurosurgeon, physiatrist, or psychiatrist—are allowed to diagnose TBI in the VA’s disability compensation process. A new congressionally mandated report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, though, is advising that it’s training and experience that count, not necessarily the specialty.

In Evaluation of the Disability Determination Process for Traumatic Brain Injury in Veterans , a committee of experts in emergency medicine, neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, psychology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and epidemiology and biostatistics review the process and current literature on TBI. The committee advises that any health care professional with “pertinent and ongoing brain injury training and experience” and up-to-date knowledge about TBI should be included in the diagnostic process.

The disability compensation is a tax-free benefit paid to veterans with disabilities resulting from disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service. The amount is determined in a 6-step process beginning when the veteran (or a proxy) files a claim. An approved clinician typically must diagnose and evaluate the degree of impairment, functional limitation, and disability.

Between 2000 and 2018, an estimated 384,000 incidents of TBI occurred in the military. That increasing prevalence means more medical specialties now include TBI training in their curriculum. The committee notes that at least 18 brain injury programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to train physicians in many specialties to diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate patients with brain injury.

Among other recommendations, the committee advised that the VA take specific actions to increase transparency at both individual and systemwide levels, such as providing veterans full access to the details of their examinations, allowing veterans to rate the quality of their evaluations, and providing public access to detailed systemwide data on the outcomes of evaluations and outcome quality. Those changes will represent a “fundamental enhancement” in the quality of disability evaluations, the committee says, which added that shifting from a focus on the consistency of the process and practitioner qualifications to a focus on the accuracy of the outcome of the evaluation will help identify steps or components in the process that warrant improvement.

It also suggested regularly updating the Veteran Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities and the Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs) for residuals of TBI to “better reflect the current state of medical knowledge.” The committee found that 3 important residuals of TBI are not adequately covered by any of the existing DBQs: insomnia, vestibular dysfunction, and near-vision dysfunction. Although 4 DBQs (mental disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, PTSD, and sleep apnea) contain isolated questions related to insomnia and sleep disruption, no single DBQ, the committee says, combines them all “in a way that captures the full extent of disability associated with post-TBI sleep disruption.” Similarly, no single DBQ captures the full extent of disability associated with post-TBI vestibular dysfunction or the disability associated with near-vision dysfunction.

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