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Newly Diagnosed: The Role of the Rheumatologist

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Updated March 04, 2008

If you’ve been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, you already have a good idea of what a rheumatologist is and what she does. If you haven’t encountered this medical specialist yet, chances are you will very soon.

When most people hear the word rheumatology, they think rheumatoid arthritis and make the logical leap that a rheumatologist treats diseases of the joints. She does. But she also diagnoses and treats diseases of the muscles and bones, such as osteoporosis, and a number of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus. A rheumatologist treats more than 100 such diseases, in fact, and many of these diseases involve multiple organ systems and complex differential diagnoses. Treatments can be complicated, and there are usually specific requirements for monitoring therapy.

Rheumatologists go through four years of medical school, three years of training in internal medicine or pediatrics, and then top off their education with another two or three years of rheumatology training. Specifically, rheumatologists are trained to detect and diagnose the cause of swelling and pain. For lupus patients, these are hallmarks of inflammation.

In many cases, the rheumatologist works alongside other physicians -- sometimes sharing and giving advice, other times acting as the principal physician, assisted by a team of skilled professionals, from nurses to social workers.

One decision you’ll have to make is what medical professional will be your point person -- the main point of contact who manages your treatment and monitors your disease. This may be your primary care physician -- the family doctor, so to speak -- who you may be most comfortable with and who you feel knows you best. But you might also select a rheumatologist, who can not only manage the treatment of your autoimmune disease, but may be able to serve as your primary care doctor as well.

Sources:

What is a Rheumatologist? American College of Rheumatology. February 2008.

A Rheumatologist as Principal Care Physician Minnesota Lupus News, October - November 1998 Lupus Foundation of Minnesota.

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