Everything you need to know about becoming a rheumatologist

A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases which affect the musculoskeletal system or are caused by autoimmune conditions. When a person experiences problems with pain, movement, and mobility — specifically within the joints or muscles — they may be referred to a rheumatologist by their primary care doctor for evaluation of potential rheumatic causes. 

What does a rheumatologist do?

Rheumatologists are doctors who assess and analyze patient symptoms to determine a root cause and course of treatment. Although they do treat acute conditions, most issues that a rheumatologist will address are chronic autoimmune problems. Common conditions treated by rheumatologists include lupus, osteoarthritis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, fibromyalgia, and tendinitis.

Symptoms such as swelling or pain in the joints, bone pain, and muscle stiffness or weakness with no known acute cause, such as an injury, may indicate the need for an evaluation by a rheumatologist. 

During in-office visits, rheumatologists physically assess patients and use a variety of diagnostic tools to make a diagnosis. They may order tests like bloodwork to look for the presence of inflammation in the body, as well as scans to look for structural skeletal or muscular deformities to help narrow down a root cause of their patient’s pain and determine the best course of treatment. 

Treating a rheumatic disease can be complex, so rheumatologists often spend much of their patient’s appointment time discussing symptoms, treatments, and how they impact a person’s daily life. As autoimmune conditions often have a genetic link, rheumatologists will often take a detailed family history to help with their evaluation and diagnosis. 

How do you become a rheumatologist?

Rheumatologists are board-certified specialty physicians, which means it takes more than a decade of education and work to become one: four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, three years of residency, and two to three years of a rheumatology fellowship.

Most rheumatologists will obtain an undergraduate degree in a scientific field like biology or pre-med before applying to medical school in order to obtain the required prerequisites. Prior to entering medical school at a school accredited through the Association of American Medical Colleges, applicants must first pass the 7.5-hour long Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

After successfully completing 4 years of medical school and passing the first two parts of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), rheumatologists are matched with an internship and residency program where they train under other physicians to complete their medical training. Rheumatologists are required to specialize in either internal medicine, or can study both internal medicine and allergy and immunology during residency. The specifications to become board-certified will vary based on which path a rheumatologist chooses. 

To become board-certified in rheumatology, a rheumatologist must be a graduate of an accredited medical school, have a valid medical license, have completed an accredited residency program in internal medicine, and complete the requirements fellowship hours and specialized training as required by the American Board of Internal Medicine. For rheumatologists who choose to dual-certify in allergy and immunology, they will also need to complete the requirements from the American Board of Allergy and Immunology, based on a rheumatologists’ chosen path. 

What skills do you need to become a rheumatologist?

As specialized healthcare professionals, rheumatologists will gain most of their skill set through specialized training in medical school, as well as during their residency and fellowship. Expertise in human anatomy and biology, as well as a thorough understanding of chronic musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions, is necessary.

Rheumatologists will often need to employ skills like critical thinking, acute observation, and problem-solving to evaluate patients and make diagnoses. As many rheumatic diseases are complex in nature, these skills are often also needed in order to troubleshoot treatment plans and navigate complicated issues. 

Working with patients to manage chronic conditions requires much patience and empathy. The ability to exercise compassion while communicating treatment plans clearly and effectively is essential. 

What is the average salary for a rheumatologist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), rheumatologists are included in the category of physicians and surgeons who made a reported average salary of $218,850 in 2020. As a specialty physician, rheumatologists may make more or less depending on where they are employed, what part of the country they work in, and how long they have been practicing. 

According to salary data from Salary.com, rheumatologists in Massachusetts are the highest paid in the U.S., with a typical annual salary range between $226,130 and $289,440. The lowest-paying state is Oklahoma, where the annual salary range for most rheumatologists falls between $195,370 and $250,070.

What is the typical career path for a rheumatologist?

After completing medical school, obtaining a medical license, and becoming board-certified, a rheumatologist can begin their chosen career path. Most rheumatologists work in outpatient settings such as a private practice or clinic and treat people of all ages. 

Some rheumatologists do choose to specialize in a specific subset of patient care such as pediatrics or elderly patients, which can require additional training past typical residency and fellowship programs. Other rheumatologists work on staff in hospitals to help evaluate and treat patients with rheumatic diseases who are hospitalized. Some rheumatologists are also involved in the research and development of new medical procedures and techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic disease.

Rheumatologists are required to complete continuing education and stay up-to-date with medical advancements in their field, including completing requirements to maintain their board certification every 10 years.

Where to find rheumatologist jobs

Those looking for a career opportunity with steady growth in the medical field may want to consider rheumatology. The BLS predicts that job market growth for all physicians — rheumatologists included — will be on par with the national average of 4% growth over the next 10 years. 

Take a look at some of the current job openings for rheumatologists on Ladders now.