How to Become a Rheumatologist—Here’s What You Need to Know
Written by MedStudy
Are you in medical school and starting to think more deeply about what specialty to choose? To help you make an informed decision, we interviewed rheumatologist, Melba I. Ovalle, MD about her career. She explained the best parts of rheumatology, the most challenging parts, and even what personality types generally excel within rheumatology.
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What Is Rheumatology?
Rheumatology is a subspecialty of internal medicine that focuses on musculoskeletal diseases as well as autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases. These rheumatic diseases span across all cultures and age ranges.
How Do I Become a Rheumatologist?
To become a rheumatologist, you complete a 3-year internal medicine residency followed by 2 to 3 years of fellowship training in rheumatology. Depending on previous training and level of expertise, most rheumatologists treat both children and adults with rheumatic diseases.
What Do Rheumatologists Treat?
Although most rheumatology practices are primarily outpatient, there is a strong affiliation with an inpatient and/or academic medical center for rheumatologic emergencies such as vasculitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, antiphospholipid syndrome, and septic arthritis. Rheumatology has come a long way from the days when only gold salt injections were given for rheumatoid arthritis and steroids were the primary treatment for most rheumatic diseases.
Today, the emergence of new oral small molecules and biologic modifiers along with more specific biomarkers and imaging modalities have improved the quality of life and survival for many patients with these chronic rheumatic diseases. The Greek root term “rheuma” means “the flow” or “natural stream,” which corresponds to the core of this specialty—to ensure the smooth flow and quality of life!
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Hear What a Career as a Rheumatologist Is Like From Dr. Ovalle
Career Focus: Rheumatology section in the Medical Student Core
What do you like best about your specialty?
I always felt that if one knew anatomy and physiology well, figuring out medical conditions wouldn’t be so difficult. You’ll probably hear throughout medical school that a thorough history and physical examination yields the correct diagnosis 80–90% of the time. This is so true for rheumatology. Sure, the lab and diagnostic studies are helpful, but most of the time the suspected diagnosis obtained from a thorough history and physical examination turns out to be the correct one in the final assessment of the patient. Clinical skills are the greatest bedside tools used in rheumatology to solve most patient diseases.
What do you dislike the most about your specialty?
I am always saddened to see when severe rheumatic diseases afflict kids (juvenile idiopathic arthritis) and young adults (lupus). Contrary to popular belief, a rheumatologist sees patients of all ages, so it is not just a specialty of older patients with arthritis.
What personality types generally excel within your specialty?
If you identify with and enjoy medical detective or investigative TV series, you will probably really enjoy rheumatology. The signs and symptoms are there for you to piece together and obtain the correct diagnosis. Most rheumatologists know their patients for many years due to the chronic state of diseases, and the doctor-patient bond is very close.
How did you know that this specialty was “the one” for you?
The clinical rotations you participate in throughout your 3rd year will give you an idea if you are enjoying the discipline, including your interaction with the providers and patients. Use your 4th year of medical school electives to further explore your area(s) of interest. For instance, I enjoyed surgery and internal medicine most in my 3rd year. I used my 4th year to take electives in ICU medicine, cardiology, rheumatology, and nephrology and enjoyed my rheumatology elective the most. Bottom line: pursue what you enjoy most, not just for dollars! Very few physicians are starving!
What tricks do you have for keeping a balance between a stressful career and a personal life?
I am a firm believer in maintaining your health: eat right, sleep whenever possible, and exercise for endurance. Not always easy to do when in training, but capitalize on any free time and treat yourself to the simple pleasures in life.
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A cool feature of the Medical Student Core is the Career Focus section at the beginning of each topic. These sections present an overview of the specialty, as well as an interview with a specialist, that paint a clear picture of what your future holds should you venture down that path.
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