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How to Choose a Rheumatologist

rheumatologist and patient

Finding a good rheumatologist is like digging for gold.  The numbers appear to be small in many areas of the United States.  I belong to 2 rheumatoid arthritis social media groups and one of the most frequent complaints is having to drive 2 hours or more each way to see their rheumatologist, because there isn’t a closer one.  Or the only one in their area is lacking in something the complainant finds necessary.

My Search for a Good Rheumatologist

Having been to many rheumatologists in Middle Tennessee and in Southwest Florida over the 43 years since I was first diagnosed, I’ve seen both good and bad.  The first one had a nasty disposition.  The second wasn’t interested in my opinion or how I felt.  He only wanted to deliver the drug of his choice and expected me to put up with the side effects, no questions asked.

The third time, I really lucked out.  I made an appointment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Rheumatology Clinic, not knowing which doctor I would see.  At that point, I was desperate, and it showed.  Pain, swelling, and fatigue ruled my life and I needed help!

Dr. Teal listened to me, asked me questions and then suggested a plan of treatment. She then asked if I was willing to try that.  Of course, I was willing!

She began with Arava.  After a few months of having to stay close to bathrooms, hair falling out and no visible improvement in my joints, it was time to move on. Dr. Teal explained the good and the bad about biologics, which were a fairly new treatment option.  I agreed to try Enbrel, her choice for my RA, and it changed my life for the better.

What Made This Physician So Good

She listened to her patient; she didn’t make me feel rushed.  She exuded confidence that together, we would find a solution.  And she was kind! 

Determine What You Want in a Rheumatologist

Before you even make an appointment, decide what type of doctor you want.  Do you want one who will listen to you, someone with a kind manner in speaking to you? Or perhaps you work best with one who comes in, ready to attack your issues immediately and seems more aggressive in personality.  I’ve had both and prefer the first.

This relationship you will build between you and your rheumatologist will hopefully last a long time, so you want to get it right in the beginning. 

Choose the Physician Who Best Fits Your Needs

The obvious first choice must be one who takes your health insurance.  Ask your family and friends for recommendations.  I find that the Next Door network found in many areas is perfect for finding recommendations.

How is the office staff in the doctor’s office? If they aren’t nice to you on the phone, that might be a red flag.

Does gender matter to you?  If so, look for the man or woman you prefer.  Is the doctor known for answering patients’ questions in a pleasant manner? 

Evaluate After the First Visit

Think about the way you felt as you left the doctor’s office.  Was there any kind of “chemistry” between you and the doctor?  Did you feel that the two of you connected?

Did he/she listen to you and encourage your questions?  And of course, did he/she answer them.

Did you feel a level of comfort as you sat in the office with the doctor?  Or were you apprehensive, even if you didn’t know why?

What I Learned from Bad Experiences

When we first moved to Florida, the rheumatologist was recommended by a local friend. Apparently, he had a good reputation in the area, but I wasn’t impressed. First visit may have lasted 10 minutes.  Subsequent visits were less.  One day he kept looking at his watch and even said he was about to miss his tee-time.  His nurse/office manager seem to do most of the work anyway.  I left him a year later for my current rheumatologist, and he was terrific!

However, 3-4 years later, our health insurance changed to one his office didn’t accept, and I was forced to find yet another doctor.  This time, I wasn’t so lucky.

I checked online for the man’s credentials.  His online references were good. He was well-liked and received glowing comments.  But I failed to check on one very important fact:  The man was not board certified!

After a few months under this man’s care, including cortisone injections in my knee, I received a phone call from an insurance company saying that the request for a specific painkiller for me was denied and they wanted to let me know.  I told the caller that I had never requested said painkiller.  She began asking me questions, and it didn’t take long to realize that someone in the doctor’s office was trying to use me for insurance fraud.  I wrote a long letter to the doctor, quickly found another rheumatologist, and never heard from him again.  Later, I heard he had left town.

Always be sure the rheumatologist (or any physician) is board certified or eligible to be if he is young and check out those references!

Another insurance change and I was able to return to the doctor I liked so much and am still under his care.  I hope that never changes!

What You May Not Want in a Rheumatologist

This site gives some good suggestions to help you avoid a negative rheumatology experience:

  1. Did the doctor minimize your pain?  While the article refers to gender bias in that women are more likely to suffer chronic pain than men, some doctors have been known to ignore the pain a patient complains of and not provide them the proper relief.  That would be a turn-off to me.
  2. Did the doctor treat just the symptom or you as a person?  If he/she only shows concern for you taking a specific drug and doesn’t take into account that you may not be able to afford it, that’s a problem.
  3. We’ve all been to doctors who focus on your weight.  Unless obesity is truly affecting your ability to function, the obsession with my need to drop 20 lbs. is not what I want to hear more than once.
  4. How was the doctor’s staff?  If it’s difficult to reach someone by phone – either reception, a nurse or somebody – that’s a red flag.  I’ve left many a voice mail in a doctor’s office that was never returned or was finally returned several days later.  Nope, that place would not be for me.

You may be able to generate an even longer list of no-no’s for a rheumatologist and if something is important to you, pay attention to it.

My own addition is to research the doctor’s online credentials thoroughly and if things don’t add up, go elsewhere.

Know When to Run

What You May Not Want in a Rheumatologist

If a doctor or his staff belittle you, make fun of your weight or make light of your pain, that’s not the doctor for you.  If he doesn’t give you time to ask your questions and doesn’t answer them, you probably need to see someone else.

Nurture Your Relationship with your Rheumatologist

While you deserve to be treated respectfully and receive the proper care and attention by your doctor and his staff, it is equally important that you do your part.

Be on time for your appointments. Treat the staff with courtesy and kindness. Don’t spend your visit with the doctor whining about your life and your problems. If something about it is affecting your symptoms, of course, you need to mention it.  Stress from outside causes can worsen your RA or any other autoimmune disease.  Just don’t dwell on that and lose the opportunity to discuss your other issues.

While the doctor should spend an appropriate amount of time with you, he/she does have other patients waiting to be seen.  Be respectful of the doctor and his/her staff and hopefully, they will do the same for you.

1 thought on “How to Choose a Rheumatologist”

  1. You made a good point that being able to relieve pain is one of the things to look into when it comes to choosing a rheumatologist. I will be helping my mom look for one soon because her knees have been getting worse over the years. It would be important to better monitor her joints at her age.

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