Welcome to From Practitioner to Patient, a column by Stefanie Remson about living with arthritis. Stefanie is both a nurse practitioner and a patient living with RA. She’s here to share what she’s learned from her own experiences as a patient and to demystify the medical side of navigating arthritis through her knowledge as a nurse practitioner.
It can be tricky to know the right questions to ask, especially just after a diagnosis.
From my experience — as both a practitioner, and a patient with RA — knowing what, when, and how to ask questions during your rheumatology appointment can be key to managing your condition.
Let’s start with a list of questions you should keep in mind during your appointment with your rheumatologist. These are especially important to ask soon after your diagnosis or if you’re being treated by a new rheumatologist. But if you’re unsure about the answers to any of these questions, it’s important to ask them at any stage in your condition journey.
This is not an all-inclusive list, but these are questions that are often overlooked.
“Can you please verify my contact information?”
One wrong number or letter in any contact information can mean your health provider is unable to reach you. I would suggest confirming your contact information. First, verify this with the front desk prior to your appointment. Next, confirm that your rheumatologist has your best contact information, too.
“Is there anything I should know about how this medical practice operates?”
Each medical practice is slightly different. They may have different processes, procedures, and technology. It’s good to know office hours, phone hours, how to receive test results, and how to request prescription refills. Also, ask about the best way to schedule appointments and to access your electronic health records.
“Do you offer telehealth visits?”
You should know if telehealth services are available and what technology is required. It’s also useful to know any policy about using this service. If you travel for medical care, need help with transportation, or have small children, this service can be very helpful when used appropriately. Some medical practices will have protocols that require face-to-face visits for certain reasons.
“What is my official diagnosis?”
You might know that you have RA or PsA, but sometimes it’s important to check if there’s any other information available about your diagnosis. For example, you might have seronegative or seropositive RA, which is often determined by anti-CCP and RF tests. Find out more about these tests for different RA diagnoses here.
Knowing your official diagnosis can empower you to do your own research and find support. This can help you communicate with other medical providers that may not have access to your records. This can also be invaluable knowledge when it comes to decoding your medical bills.
“How often should I see you [the rheumatologist]?”
Most specialty medical practices, like rheumatology, require a minimum of 1 visit every 12 months for someone to remain an active patient. Referrals can expire after 12 months from authorization. Your rheumatologist may need to see you more frequently than this. This will usually depend on the disease severity, whether you’re using medication, the practice setting, the availability of rheumatologists, and the ability of other primary care providers to monitor certain aspects of your condition. It’s good to know this expectation to start scheduling ahead of time.
“What are the remits of your [the rheumatologist] care?”
Your rheumatologist is one of your healthcare providers. You’ll likely see several other providers with different specialties. It’s useful to know what role each of them has in your care. This can help set your expectations and know what to prepare.
“How do I get in touch with you [the rheumatologist]?”
Always ask your rheumatologist how they prefer to be contacted. It’s useful to differentiate between contacting them for routine questions as well as how to contact them in an urgent situation.
“How often am I expected to get lab work and other testing?”
Sometimes you may only see your rheumatologist every 6 months, but labs might be needed more frequently than this. It can be useful to know what’s expected of you outside of the rheumatologist appointment to make sure your care is as comprehensive as possible.
“What online resources do you recommend I use between appointments?”
There’s a wealth of information available online. Knowing which of these resources your provider recommends can keep you from getting overwhelmed. These verified sources will allow you to do your own reading between visits.
These are my best tips to know when and how to ask your questions.
Start by making a clear list of questions prior to your visit. A little preparation and organization of your thoughts will go far. Writing them down can help you organize them by priority and can also help avoid duplicate questions.
It can be useful to do an online search of your questions first. Sometimes, the answer is very simple and can be found quickly. Anticipating the possible answers can also help you comprehend them better. But if you seem to get conflicting advice online, it’s OK to stop and wait for your appointment. It’s always best to confirm any information with your trusted healthcare professional.
There may not be enough time to address all your questions at one appointment, so knowing which questions to prioritize is really useful. I’d suggest taking a notepad with you so you can make a note of any answers. Nothing is worse than asking a question and forgetting the answer when you get home.
If you have a lot of questions, tell your rheumatologist at the start of your appointment.
Some providers may stop immediately and answer them, others will guarantee you time at the end of the visit, and some will have other protocols in place. Either way, it’s a lot easier for them to organize their time if you notify them at the beginning.
Try this: “I have a few questions, please let me know when is a good time to ask.”
If you do have additional questions that you aren’t able to get to in an appointment, you can ask if you can forward these to your provider. This might be via an electronic health record (EHR) portal, email, or by leaving a document with the front desk. Alternatively, you might be able to organize a telehealth visit to discuss any remaining questions or concerns.
It helps to tailor your questions to your individual rheumatologist.
They may have different backgrounds, training, and experiences. They may also have access to experimental medications through formal Clinical Trials that the provider may be aware of.
Instead of saying “What are the next steps in treating my RA?” ask “What are your next steps, or ideas, in treating my RA?” It’s a respectful and empowering, way to ask for clarification.
You aren’t expected to know the exact roles of each of your doctors, but it can be helpful to vaguely know their responsibilities. This is why I always suggest asking “What are the remits of your care?” to any health professional.
This way, you can make sure the question is appropriate for your rheumatologist, and not for your primary care provider or another provider on your care team.
Medical appointments can feel overwhelming. I know it’s difficult to feel in control or know how to navigate the situation. I hope these tips will help you.
But if you’re ever in doubt of anything, ask. No judgment will be passed, and no prior knowledge is ever necessary. Your healthcare professional is there to help you on your journey. Always remember that.
Medically reviewed on January 24, 2023
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