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The Role of the Rheumatologist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease

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The role of the rheumatologist is to diagnose (detect), treat and medically manage patients with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. These health problems affect the joints, muscles, bones and sometimes other internal organs (e.g., kidneys, lungs, blood vessels, brain). Because these diseases are often complex, they benefit from the care of an expert. Only rheumatologists are experts in this field of medicine.

The rheumatologist interacts with the patient and family, gives health information and partners with other health care providers.

What Does a Rheumatologist Do?

The rheumatologist assesses:

  • Signs (from a physical exam) and symptoms (what you see and how you feel), including systemic (whole body) involvement by a rheumatic disease
  • Joint disorders
  • Overall function, including physical, mental well-being and level of independence
  • Results of advanced imaging and lab tests
  • Treatment options
  • Need for more assessment and treatment, such as
    • referrals to other health care providers
    • orthopedic aids (splint, brace, cane, etc.) or corrective surgery
    • hospital stay

A rheumatologist aims to help patients with rheumatic disease to have the best possible quality of life. Toward this aim, rheumatologists advocate for the patient in all aspects of health care and in the community. As a group, these doctors also support laws that promote patient rights and patient-centered care.

The rheumatologist teaches the patient, family and community about health information and how to live with a chronic (long-term) rheumatic disease. Topics can include medications, coping mechanisms, techniques for preventing disability or regaining function, and ways to improve quality of life.

As a member of the health care team, rheumatologists consult with all team members. They also refer patients to and receive referrals from other care providers.

Where Do Rheumatologists Work?

Rheumatologists provide care in various health care settings. These include a doctor’s office (private practice, university clinics, HMO, etc.) and hospital. Inpatient units where these doctors practice include medical, surgical, rehabilitation and transitional care.

What Kind of Training Do Rheumatologists Have?

Rheumatologists receive years of education and training beyond college. After they earn a medical degree (four years of medical school), they complete a residency program in internal medicine or pediatrics. They have another two to three years in specialized rheumatology training.

After completing their rheumatology fellowship training, they must pass a rigorous national exam. For adult rheumatologists, the subspecialty exam is conducted by the American Board of Internal Medicine. For pediatric rheumatologists, the American Board of Pediatrics conducts the exam.


For a list of rheumatologists in your area, click here.

Learn more about rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals.


The American College of Rheumatology has compiled this list to give you a starting point for your own additional research. The ACR does not endorse or maintain these Web sites, and is not responsible for any information or claims provided on them. It is always best to talk with your rheumatologist for more information and before making any decisions about your care.

The Arthritis Foundation

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

American College of Rheumatology: Choose Rheumatology

Rheumatology Research Foundation
Learn how the ACR Rheumatology Research Foundation advances research and training to improve the health of people with rheumatic diseases.

Updated August 2012

Written by Raymond L. Yung, MD, and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Communications and Marketing Committee.

This patient fact sheet is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of a medical or health condition.

© 2012 American College of Rheumatology