Finding the Right Doctors for Your Arthritis Care Team

Take the time to find health professionals that suit you best.

Choosing a doctor is something we all need to do at some point in our lives. That's especially true when you're dealing with arthritis. Often the doctor we need is dictated by our condition – and how urgently we need one. 
If you have a cut that needs stitches, you need a technician, and you need one now. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you need a rheumatologist, because you require a lifetime of medical treatment and expertise. 

A good health professional for one person isn’t always the right expert for someone else. Just because a physician is “good,” doesn’t mean he’s right for you, says Edward Krupat, PhD, a Harvard Medical School psychologist. Be it common interests or intangible qualities that attract good friends or make people fall in love, for some reason certain patients just seem to click with certain doctors.

Doctors feel it, too. “There are some people that you just click with immediately and you know it’s going to be a wonderful match,” says David Watts, MD, a San Francisco physician. 
Doctor-Patient Dynamics

Needs and Expectations

Like any relationship, the doctor-patient dynamic is based on meeting needs – and expectations – on both sides. In the case of the cut requiring stitches, the need is simple and clear – and the expectation mutual – to have the cut stitched with as little pain and scarring as possible. 

But when a patient is choosing a doctor for arthritis, needs may be numerous and expectations may range from basic to grandiose. You may expect your doctor to know how to minimize joint erosions, avoid joint surgery and improve mobility -- all without risk of side effects. Or you may merely expect a prescription to help you through a flare.


Take time to evaluate your treatment goals, needs and expectations. Then go to the doctor with a clear idea of your expectations, and communicate  them to your doctor.

But communication is a two-way street. A health professional who treats arthritis needs extensive input from you. Your doctor or therapist requires feedback and at times uncomfortable self-disclosure. Have you been exercising as recommended? Are you taking herbal remedies or trying other alternatives your doctor might not condone? Does a weakness for chips or cookies make it difficult to stick to your recommended diet? 

“Good communication is the most important part of the doctor-patient relationship,” says William Buchholz, MD, an oncologist and primary-care physician in Mountain View, California. “Both parties need to be able to clearly communicate their goals.”

Dixie Byers of Emmanus, Iowa, can attest to that. “My doctor and I have a very good rapport, but it wasn’t always that way,” she says. “In the beginning, he just didn’t stop to listen to what I was saying or to answer my questions.”

But as time progressed, the relationship evolved and both parties changed. Byers learned to ask for what she needed. “I told him, ‘I need more information from you. I need to know what’s ahead for me.’” She also began conducting her own research on the Internet. She took the information to him with  questions written down. Byers became more involved and more assertive. As a result, she found her doctor started to listen and work more with her.

“Most doctors appreciate a patient who is informed and involved,” says Krupat. Research shows patients with a chronic disease who take a role in their day-to-day care fare better than more passive patients. If being involved is important to you, let your doctor know and do your homework. If your doctor discourages you or is unresponsive, it may be time to shop for another doc.

Finding a New Health Team Member

There are many ways to find a new doctor or other health professional. Word-of-mouth is an excellent resource. Friends in your arthritis support group or exercise class are great sources. But remember, the best doctor is nearly always in the eyes of the beholder. 

You may also check with your insurance company. First off, because you know you’ll get someone on your plan. Also, some insurers compile information like treatment philosophy or communication style about doctors – not just educational background and office hours. 

What to Look for in a Health Professional

Regardless of your personality, you should always seek a doctor who has the three Cs – competence, communication and compassion – says Dr. Buchholz. You must be confident your doctor knows what he’s doing, that he can convey the information and instructions you need, and that he cares about your wellbeing. Other qualities you’ll want in any doctor include:
  • Experience treating your condition. The more experience your doctor has with your condition, generally, the more adept he will be at recognizing and treating it. For example, a doctor who has little experience with fibromyalgia might not be as quick to make a diagnosis and prescribe effective treatment as one who’s spent a lot of time with such patients.
  • Up-to-date knowledge.  Arthritis research advances continuously. Make sure your doctor is on top of the latest studies so he can provide the best care.
  • Accessibility.  A doctor who can’t see you for weeks or return calls when you’re in the midst of a medication reaction or a flare can make you feel like a second-rate patient.
  • Willingness to fight. A good doctor will go to bat for you with your insurance company if they don’t want to cover a specialist referral, surgical procedure or prescribed medication.
  • A solid office staff. Your doctor may be wonderful, but if her staff loses your phone messages, deletes your e-mail, fails to do what they say they will or treats you rudely when you call or visit, consider looking elsewhere.

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