Patient exam

Important Questions to Ask Your Rheumatologist

April 28, 2023 | Rheumatic Disease


Patients often seek out a rheumatologist in hopes of answering the question, “Do I have an autoimmune disease?” This usually comes after experiencing difficult to explain symptoms―which might include joint pain or fatigue.

Perhaps another physician, or a family member with similar symptoms, has suggested that you might have an autoimmune condition. When patients first see a rheumatologist, it’s often clear that they just want some answers about their condition.

Rheumatologists are experts in systemic autoimmune conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system and identifying their causes. There are over 100 autoimmune conditions, and the journey of learning if you have one can often be long. For many, this journey begins with describing what you are feeling, followed by laboratory tests, imaging, and potentially a diagnosis of autoimmune disease. If diagnosed, you may start a new medication and monitor your disease to ensure you can tolerate treatment.

This whole process can take some time, but the relationship between you and your rheumatologist can become even more productive by readying yourself with pertinent questions. Here are some important question suggestions that you may find helpful.

Does this sound like an autoimmune condition?

At your first visit, after you discuss your symptoms, your rheumatologist will generally have a degree of suspicion about whether what you described sounds like an autoimmune condition. Sometimes it can be quite clear and other times it is not. It is helpful for you to ask what your doctor is thinking so you can begin any further steps on the same page.

Why are you ordering these tests for me?

You may be asked to undergo further lab work or imaging studies. This could be because your rheumatologist has a certain autoimmune condition in mind or to rule out conditions that can be mimickers. Additionally, it can ensure you are healthy enough to start medication. It always helps to understand why these tests are being ordered―so don’t be afraid to ask!

What is my diagnosis?

Often, I have met patients who are unclear about their diagnosis. This is an unfortunate scenario as it can lead to potential misunderstandings in the future with other physicians. Office visits can understandably seem like a blur in between all the questions and paperwork, but make sure you ask your rheumatologist to clarify your diagnosis if you feel confused. It’s also okay to take notes to help remember your visit and discussion.

I’ve been diagnosed with a new condition―what can I expect moving forward?

You’ve just been told you have a new autoimmune diagnosis―this can be accompanied by a range of emotions, but luckily your rheumatologist has a great breadth of knowledge and experience that they are very willing to share with you.

When asking about your new diagnosis, nothing is off-limits. It’s okay to ask about the future of your disease and what to expect for the next few months or even years. Your rheumatologist should also be able to give you some guidance on when to schedule a follow-up visit, which symptoms to expect, and which symptoms are a cause for concern.

I’ve been recommended to start a new therapy―what can I expect moving forward?

A new diagnosis likely means starting a new therapy to better control your disease and keep you healthy. Ask about your therapy options and what your rheumatologist recommends, and why. Feel free to raise questions about side effects or testing to monitor how your newly prescribed therapy is working.

What happens if I do not improve?

We are fortunate to live in a time with many more therapeutic options than days past. You may be wondering what to expect if the medication that was just recommended is not effective. Ask your rheumatologist what potential next steps you can take if your treatment plan doesn’t work as expected―it can help you better prepare for what may be around the next corner.

Are there treatments other than medications that can help me feel better?

Finally, rheumatologists have long suggested various lifestyle and dietary modifications to help their patients feel better. I am personally very lucky to learn from my patients every day regarding which modifications work best for them and I am more than happy to pass on that knowledge. Patients can be great teachers for their physicians as well, and sharing knowledge and experiences can help the entire rheumatology community.

Osman Bhatty, MD

About the Author

Osman Bhatty, MD

Osman Bhatty, MD, is currently a practicing rheumatologist in Chicago. Dr. Bhatty can also be found on Twitter @osmanbhattyMD.

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