If you’ve been seeing your rheumatologist for a long time and have a good relationship with them, it can feel scary to find out they’re retiring or leaving their practice. First, know that those feelings are completely justifiable. “It’s normal and absolutely okay to be uncertain or anxious when having to change to a new physician who you don’t know,” says Joseph Martinez, MD, staff rheumatologist, Texas Orthopedics.
“When you take care of people with chronic diseases, they’re with you for a long time,” agrees Karen Kolba, MD, a retired rheumatologist from Pacific Arthritis Center Medical Group in Santa Maria, California. In fact, when Dr. Kolba retired, many of her patients didn’t take the news well. “I knew a lot about them, their illnesses and their families,” she says. “The prospect of trying to find another rheumatologist was daunting for many.”
“I had been Dr. Kolba’s patient about a year and a half,” recalls Terry H., who has osteoarthritis. “From my point of view, I was REALLY sorry to see her go. For her point of view, I was REALLY happy for her because I love being retired and wanted the same fun for her.”
Unfortunately, it’s becoming more common for physicians to leave their jobs. According to a survey by recruitment company Jackson Physician Search, 54 percent of physicians say the COVID-19 pandemic prompted them to reconsider their careers. Of those surveyed, 21 percent said they’re considering early retirement and 15 percent said they’re considering leaving the industry entirely.
If the time comes when your rheumatologist retires, you’re not doomed. Finding someone else — someone you’ll like just as much as your other rheumatologist — can be an exciting new venture.
Where to Find a New Rheumatologist
Once you come to terms with the idea of finding a new rheumatologist, your first instinct may be to turn to Google. And while Internet browsing can sometimes be beneficial, “too much of the online information is out of date — more than a few physicians with an online presence have passed or moved out of state,” cautions Dr. Kolba.
Luckily, there are lots of reliable places you can begin looking for a new rheumatologist.
Your former rheumatologist
The person leaving is actually one of the best people to ask for recommendations. “I gave people a list of names of all the rheumatologists within 60 miles with contact information,” says Dr. Kolba.
“Trusting Dr. Kolba’s recommendation, I contacted a rheumatologist who was new in the community,” says Stephanie C., who lives with RA. “My transition to the new doctor was relatively smooth and I have been able to start reducing the amount of medication that I take daily.”
Your insurance company
Ask your insurance company for a list of in-network providers to avoid unnecessary costs. “Many insurance plans can be different, but most will provide a list of covered doctors,” says Dr. Martinez. “This helps ensure you get coverage for visits, diagnostic tests and any medications prescribed.”
The ACR website
People you know
Check in with your contacts — ask around your family members, friends, colleagues, etc. to see if they have any recommendations or know someone with a similar condition as yours who may see a specialist. If someone you trust trusts their doctor, chances are you’ll trust them too.
Choosing a New Rheumatologist
Now that you have a few rheumatologists in mind, how do you narrow them down? Keep these considerations in mind:
Currently in America, there’s a lack of rheumatologists. In fact, the U.S. could face a shortage of more than 4,100 full-time rheumatologists by 2030, according to research published in Arthritis Care & Research, so it can get complicated if there’s an extended wait time to be seen. “Open availability means the doctor can see you in a timely manner, which is important, especially depending on the severity of the condition,” says Dr. Martinez.
The convenience of where the doctor practices can make a big difference in the rheumatologist you choose. Consider whether you’ll be heading to appointments from work or home most often, and what area makes the most sense for them to be located.
If you can’t find someone close, there may also be virtual opportunities available. “Location may be less of an issue with more telemedicine options,” says Dr. Kolba, adding that she prefers to touch and feel the joints.
You may want to find someone who has specific experience relating to your condition. For example, “People with life-threatening illnesses might want to gravitate to university medical school practices — larger community practices are likely to have physicians who take a particular interest or have expertise in less common or more serious conditions,” says Dr. Kolba.
It’s important that you jive well with your new rheumatologist. “Ask yourself if you feel comfortable asking questions you have uncertainty about or expressing reservations, getting clarifications, etc.,” says Dr. Martinez.
Questions to Ask at Your Initial Appointment
Be sure to come to your first appointment as prepared as possible. “Make notes, rehearse what you’re going to say, and practice out loud,” suggests Dr. Kolba. Bring records from prior physicians and brush up on the history of your condition too:
Be prepared to answer the following questions:
- How did your problem start?
- How was it diagnosed?
- What treatments have you had?
- What worked, what didn’t?
- What medication side effects are you most concerned with?
- What do you understand about your disease/condition?
- How do your symptoms impact your quality of life?
To help you determine whether this is the right rheumatologist for you, consider asking the following:
- How long have you been practicing in this field?
- What avenues of communication do you prefer (phone, email, online portal, etc.)?
- What is your general treatment approach to my condition?
- What is your appointment availability?
- Am I able to get a follow-up visit sooner than planned?
- What kind of pain relief methods do you recommended?
Finding a new rheumatologist after you’ve already established a trusted relationship with your former one can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. One piece of advice: “Have patience and keep an open mind when establishing a new rheumatologist,” says Dr. Martinez. “There might be different approaches or opinions — and that’s okay.”
Be a More Proactive Patient with ArthritisPower
Join CreakyJoints’ patient-centered research registry to track your symptoms, disease activity, and medications — and share with your doctor. Sign up.
Battafarano, et al. “2015 American College of Rheumatology Workforce Study: Supply and Demand Projections of Adult Rheumatology Workforce, 2015-2030.” Arthritis Care & Research. April 2018. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23518.
Interview with retired rheumatologist Karen Kolba, MD.
Interview with staff rheumatologist Joseph Martinez, MD.
Jackson Physician Search. New Study from Jackson Physician Search Reveals 69% of Physicians Disengaged; 54% Say COVID Driving Change in Job Plans. February 2021. https://www.jacksonphysiciansearch.com/new-study-from-jackson-physician-search-reveals-69-of-physicians-disengaged-54-say-covid-driving-change-in-job-plans/.