When you need a contractor for home repairs, you may ask for names from friends, get estimates, and check references. When you have rheumatoid arthritis, you should put the same kind of effort into getting the right doctor. With RA, having the right doctor is crucial to living well with your disease.
Of course, the doctor that’s right for one person isn't always right for another. But there are certain attributes everyone with RA should look in a doctor. Here are five things to consider whether you're looking for a new doctor or thinking about the one you have.
Finding a Rheumatologist
Ideally, you should see a rheumatologist to treat your RA.
A rheumatologist is a specialist in internal medicine who has had additional training in diagnosing and treating arthritis and related conditions. This includes experience prescribing disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologics, which relieve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and halt joint damage for many people.
Sometimes people with RA can't see a rheumatologist as often as they should. For example, their insurance may not cover the doctor or there is no rheumatologist near them.
If that’s your situation, try to find a rheumatologist who can work with your primary care doctor to treat your arthritis. You will still need to see the rheumatologist occasionally, but your primary care doctor may handle your day-to-day treatment.
For this to work well, the rheumatologist must be willing to work with your primary care doctor. Your primary care doctor must also want to work with the rheumatologist and be able treat or coordinate care for other problems, including those that can accompany RA.
If it’s just not possible to see a rheumatologist at all, look for a primary care doctor who treats many RA patients.
Treating RA Aggressively
Research shows that joint damage can happen in the first few years of rheumatoid arthritis. So it’s important to diagnose and treat your RA early.
Your rheumatologist should be willing to treat your rheumatoid arthritis aggressively, if necessary, to avoid more serious problems later. Guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology recommend that everyone diagnosed with RA take a DMARD, such as methotrexate, plaquenil, or azulfadine, even if their RA is mild.
If you can't see a rheumatologist, then look for a doctor who has experience prescribing DMARDs and biologics, or is willing to work closely with a rheumatologist who does.
Talking to Your Doctor About RA
To make the best decisions about treating your RA, you and your rheumatologist must communicate well. Your doctor must be willing to answer questions, but it is your responsibility to ask them. He should also help you better understand your RA and what to expect from treatment. Because your time with your doctor may be limited, find out if your doctor has a nurse on staff who can help answer some questions.
A poll conducted by the British Medical Journal found compassion, understanding, and empathy among the characteristics patients most value in doctors. Other research shows that if you feel comfortable with your doctor, you're more likely to comply with his recommendations and take the medications he prescribes.