Facts About Rheumatology

Rheumatology is a sub-specialty in internal medicine. Rheumatologists treat an array of rheumatologic diseases, including autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus, inflammatory conditions that may affect joints, like psoriatic arthritis and gout, and a broad array of disorders affecting joints that may cause pain and limit function. Rheumatologists also treat osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, a common cause of back pain, and soft tissue disorders such as tendinitis and bursitis. In all, there are more than 120 types of diseases treated by rheumatologists.

While some may perceive these diseases as risks for specific populations – like the elderly – rheumatologic diseases can impact all ages and patient populations. Further, many of these diseases are life-long challenges for patients.

The complexity of these diseases, from the physician and patients’ perspective, is part of the focus of the Frances Hamburger Institute for Community Rheumatology.

Here are some facts about rheumatology – the physicians, diseases, and patients. All of them are building blocks for the work of the Institute:

  • A rheumatologist in the U.S. is board certified after specialized training; a rheumatologist’s journey to opening a practice and treating patients generally requires 8 years of post-secondary education (undergraduate and medical school), followed by 5 to 6 years of residency and fellowship.
  • There are currently an estimated 5,000 rheumatologists practicing in the U.S. Half of these physicians are independent rheumatologists treating patients in communities across the country – the other half are affiliated with hospitals and hospital systems or are working with drug companies researching treatments for the diseases.
  • Managing and treating rheumatologic diseases – some life-long, chronic illnesses – may require expensive medications like biologics. The FDA notes, “In contrast to most drugs that are chemically synthesized and their structure is known, most biologics are complex mixtures that are not easily identified or characterized…Biological products often represent the cutting-edge of biomedical research and, in time, may offer the most effective means to treat a variety of medical illnesses and conditions that presently have no other treatments available.” By many estimates, rheumatologists manage care for patients with the highest-cost-of-care chronic illnesses.
  • Given the nature of rheumatologic diseases, the physicians treating patients are scientists who have an intense interest in current research. Rheumatologists need a deep understanding of their patients and symptoms as rheumatologic diseases and biological medications used to treat them change over time.
  • It is estimated the many forms of arthritis affects more than 46 million Americans – and results in disability for 19 million people. Arthritis is responsible for more disability than any other condition, including heart disease, diabetes, and back or spine problems. Rheumatoid arthritis impacts 1.3 million Americans and is the third most common type of arthritis behind osteoarthritis (26.9 million) and gout (8.3 million).
  • Biologics frequently used to treat patients are expensive – costing from $1,000 to $3,000 (and more) per month. These treatments, which are administered through injections or intravenous infusions, may slow or halt the progression of joint damage – and even push rheumatoid arthritis into remission – but the biologic drugs only work optimally for 2 out of 3 patients.
  • With the number of people impacted by rheumatologic diseases and the cost of current treatments, continued research is critical to understanding the diseases and advancing the quality of care and efficacy of treatments. Independent rheumatologists are key participants in this ongoing research and evaluating patient outcomes and treatments.
  • Health care is a complex and evolving sector – physicians are at the center of the sector in terms of treating patients, controlling costs, and supporting research. Given the turmoil in medicine (and the costs of medical school and establishing practices), some physicians wish they were in a different field. But according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report, rheumatologists rank the highest among all sub-specialty physician groups that were most likely to choose medicine again as a career. In other words, rheumatologists find their work, patients, treatments and practices rewarding despite the challenges facing medicine and the fact that from a compensation standpoint, rheumatologists’ annual income ranks toward the bottom when compared to other sub-specialties.

The work – and success – of independent rheumatologists are vital to treating millions of American impacted with rheumatologic diseases. The Frances Hamburger Institute for Community Rheumatology is dedicated to promoting the efforts of rheumatologists in treating their patients and advancing medical research.