What is a Rheumatologist?    

A rheumatologist is a specialist doctor who diagnoses and treats: 

  • arthritis – where joints are painful, swollen and stiff 
  • other musculoskeletal conditions - which affect bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments as well as joints 
  • autoimmune diseases – where the musculoskeletal system and other parts of the body, including eyes, skin, internal organs and the nervous system, can be inflamed. 

A rheumatologist may take some fluid out of (aspirate) and/or inject a joint but they do not perform surgery. 

How are rheumatologists trained?

A rheumatologist must graduate from University medical school. They then complete a hospital internship. Once the internship is complete, the junior doctor joins the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and have at least three years of basic physician training.  They then have at least three years of specialist training in rheumatology. Once they are awarded their Fellowship of the RACP they are registered with the Australian Health Professional Regulation Agency  (AHPRA).  Most rheumatologists in Australia are full members of the Australian Rheumatology Association (ARA).   

Rheumatologists in Australia must participate in continuing professional development (CPD) throughout their careers, managed by the RACP but regulated by AHPRA.

What services do rheumatologists offer?

The training described above provides your rheumatologist with the skills to try and find out the cause of your symptoms. At your first visit the rheumatologist will usually ask you details about your symptoms and examine you. Investigations such as blood tests, X-rays and scans may be needed. Once a diagnosis is made, your rheumatologist will explain your illness and what you might expect in the future. This is important as some rheumatology diseases might affect you for a long time. 

Your rheumatologist will work with you and the other members of the rheumatology healthcare team to design a program to treat your disease, manage your pain and maximise your quality of life.  If you have certain diseases, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, it is recommended you see your rheumatologist long term. If you have another disease, such as Osteoarthritis, after the initial visit you may be treated by your GP, with the rheumatologist available for advice if needed. Some specialised medications can only be prescribed in Australia by a rheumatologist.

When should I see a rheumatologist?

Many people have joint and muscle pain from time to time. However, if you have pain, stiffness and/or swelling in joints and/or muscles that does not improve within a few weeks you should see your GP so they can decide if you should be referred to see a rheumatologist. A GP may recommend a referral  for you to a rheumatologist when:

  • they have made a diagnosis of or suspect that you have an inflammatory musculoskeletal condition
  • you have painful, swollen, stiff joints that improved after treatment but returned when you stopped taking medication
  • you have unusual test results