11 Things to Bring to Your First Rheumatologist Appointment

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Your family doctor suspected you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and referred you to a rheumatologist. That’s scary enough by itself, but facing the first appointment with a specialist can really ramp up the nerves. Will they confirm the diagnosis? What can you expect?

Today, I’ll share tips on what to bring to your first appointment to make the process easier.

White flower growing on crack street.

Hope and courage

The possible diagnosis of a chronic illness can be daunting. Before your appointment, ask your loved ones to remind you of all the hard things you’ve done in your life. Remember that you have the strength and resilience to deal with this. New medications have changed the RA treatment approach to one that hits early and aggressively, improving your chances of remission. There is good reason to hope you will be able to live a fairly normal life with RA.

Woman writing down notes.

Medical history

In the first appointment, the rheumatologist will take your medical history and conduct a physical exam. You can make this part of the diagnostic process more efficient by writing down your medical history and the symptoms that brought you there ahead of time. Use bullet points and limit it to two pages, max. Remember to add a list of medications you are taking. I have yet to meet a doctor who didn’t appreciate the extra time and clarity this kind of documentation can provide.

Person going through paperwork

Test results

If your family doctor ordered tests to help identify the cause of your symptoms, bring a copy of the results. This may save you from having to go through the tests again. Some rheumatologists may order their own tests to make a diagnosis. You may want to start keeping your own file of medical documents related to your condition. This can include symptom tracking, medication lists, blood tests, imaging tests](http://www.healthcentral.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/c/80106/176565/rheumatoid) on CDs, a list of doctors, and much more.

Stethoscope on a medical book.

A medical dictionary

I mean this in a tongue-in-cheek way, but perhaps bringing a medical dictionary wouldn’t be a bad idea. You are about to enter a new area with its own specialized language. If your doctor is affiliated with a teaching hospital, they may have a resident do the initial assessment. Hearing the two of them talk jargon about your case can be like listening to a foreign language — incomprehensible for those not in the know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if there’s something you don’t understand.

Wall of hats.

Your advocate hat

When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to learn self-advocacy skills. After all, it’s your body and your life, so tests and treatments must make sense to you. Self-advocacy often starts with research, talking to other people with a chronic illness, and thinking about your own values and wishes for your life with chronic illness. Learning to be an effective advocate for yourself can take time and experience, but you’ll get there.

Patients in a waiting room.


Being patient is in an important quality to have when you go to that first appointment. Waiting calmly for your turn will reduce your anxiety. Being able to roll with delays as you wait for test results will make your life easier than calling your doctor’s office every day to check. But being an advocate for yourself also means knowing when to stop being patient. Sometimes waiting too long can be detrimental to your health.

Question mark on green background.

List of questions

That first appointment can seem like a blur five minutes after leaving. That’s also usually when an important question pops into your mind. Prepare by doing some research before the appointment, think about the things you want to ask the most, and write down 3-5 issues you have. If you have more questions afterward, you can always book time to see your doctor again, call, or perhaps email. Remember that the rheumatologist is your doctor all the time, not just when you see them in their office.

Cheerleaders with pom-poms.

Team spirit

When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to create a team environment with your doctor (pom-poms optional!). Working together will make efforts to improve your quality of life much more effective. Being an active participant in your care and an empowered patient means that you are in charge of making decisions. After all, you are the person living with a chronic illness 24/7.

Man laughing.

A sense of humor

Being a patient in a medical setting is a surreal experience. A healthy sense of humor will help you deal with all the craziness you’re about to encounter. The glamorous paper gowns, trekking from one end of a hospital to another, blood tests, imaging tests, dealing with nervous medical students, and the occasional dragon receptionist. Trust me, there is so much material that you’ll be able to get a second job is a standup comedian afterward!

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.