What to Know About Telehealth for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Telehealth for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) allows you to check in and follow up with your healthcare provider. Accessing these appointments from the safety and comfort of your home has never been easier as more offices make the move to offer telehealth services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth visits can be conducted via phone calls and videoconferencing depending on your provider and the reason for your appointment. For example, a prescription consult or refill appointment could be conducted over a phone call, but talking about new joint inflammation or physical symptoms like swelling and redness would be better on a video call so your doctor can see what you’re describing.

A woman has medical consultation appointment video video call with her doctor.

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When to Use Telehealth for Rheumatoid Arthritis 

It is important for your doctor to be able to conduct physical examinations of your joints to diagnose and keep track of your RA. It used to be that it could be done only in person. Nowadays, you can use telehealth for many aspects of your rheumatoid arthritis care.

Telehealth is used more and more to manage conditions like RA. The 2020 Rheumatic Disease Patient Survey found that 66% of people with rheumatic diseases like RA had been treated by a rheumatologist via a telehealth appointment within the past year.

You may want to use telehealth for your RA in the following scenarios:

  • You need a routine checkup with your current medical professional.
  • Your rheumatologist is located too far away.
  • You need a prescription refill. 
  • You are experiencing a new or worsening side effect of your medications.
  • You are wondering if it is time to consider surgery and are seeking a consult before moving forward with in-person discussions.
  • You want to talk to an occupational therapist or physical therapist about suitable exercises for joint protection or assistive devices like canes and walkers.
  • You’re curious about how diet plays a role in RA pain management and want to discuss options with a dietitian.

You May Need to Be Seen in Person If…

There are some situations that still require an in-person visit:

  • Your doctor wants you to get a blood test such as rheumatoid factor and cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies.
  • Your doctor wants to conduct a thorough physical exam, which includes checking your reflexes and muscle strength. 
  • You are experiencing severe side effects from your medications.
  • You need new X-rays to help your doctor determine the state of your joint damage.
  • You are taking methotrexate and require routine blood work to check your liver functioning. 
  • You need joint fusion surgery, tendon repair surgery, or total joint replacement to manage severe RA.

Benefits and Challenges

Telehealth may be an appealing option for someone with RA who has limited mobility or severe symptoms, including chronic pain, fatigue, and joint stiffness, that make it difficult to attend in-person appointments. Telehealth can make getting care for RA less daunting, encouraging people with the condition to seek care sooner for any changes in their symptoms. 

Telehealth also provides significant time and money savings in that people with RA don't have to take time off from work to commute to their appointments. This also makes healthcare appointments a lot more convenient for this patient population.

Your family or other loved ones can participate in your appointments as well. They can help relay additional information about your condition to your healthcare provider in case you forget anything. This also allows them to understand and help with your RA management plan.

A recent study showed that over 71% of patients who visited a rheumatologist via telehealth were satisfied with their appointment experience.

Limitations of Telehealth for RA

However, surveyed patients have expressed that it is more challenging to receive difficult news regarding their RA when it is done over the phone or videoconferencing.

Another downside to telehealth is challenges with technology. In order to have a successful appointment, some patient education regarding accessing and using the appropriate electronic platform is critical. And if problems arise that require troubleshooting, they may be left to fend for themselves. The American College of Rheumatology says the rapid uptake of the utilization of telehealth platforms has outpaced the availability of customer support. 

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Preparing for your telehealth visit begins with contacting your provider. If you do not currently have a provider or they don’t offer telehealth services, ask your provider for a referral or search online for available options. When you book the appointment, they should tell you about their telehealth protocols, whether you’ll need to sign a consent form in advance, and if access to a video camera is required. 

Preparation tips to consider:

  • If you’re unsure whether your visit will be covered by insurance, contact your provider. Ask if you need any documentation from the provider for reimbursement or coverage. 
  • For audio-only telehealth visits, you’ll need access to a phone. Make sure you’ve provided your clinician’s office with the correct phone number, charged your device, and know how to use the speakerphone option in case holding the device for the duration of the call becomes too challenging due to pain in the wrist and finger joints.
  • For video calls, you’ll need to know what platform to use. Update the application to its latest version and test your login information.
  • If you are going to use a public computer, call ahead to reserve its use for your visit. Make sure you will have a private area and headphones.
  • If you’re attempting to show your clinician swollen, red, or disfigured joints, make sure you have proper lighting or have taken relevant photos in advance. You can send them to your provider ahead of time and refer to them during the video call.
  • You will want to have loose-fitting clothing to wear that can be easily adjusted to show areas of concern if needed.
  • Have a list of questions ready and easily accessible during your call, especially if this is your first telehealth visit or you are visiting a new provider.
  • Think ahead about how you’ve been managing your RA and what symptoms or complaints need to be shared with your provider. Keep a few days' or weeks' worth of notes on things like flare-ups, fatigue, sleep changes, appetite changes, and new or increasing pain and mobility issues.

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

You should always confirm the exact coverage details with your insurance provider. You can also learn more at the America's Health Insurance Plans website and call the billing department of your doctor's office to ask about insurance coverage for telehealth visits.

What Happens During the Visit

While you can reasonably expect your telehealth experience to be similar to that of an in-person visit, there are also notable differences.

Here's what may happen during your visit:

  • To assess your joint health, you may be asked how often and to what extent you’re experiencing joint pain, swelling, redness, etc. 
  • To assess overall pain levels with regards to medications, you may be asked to describe in detail what types of pain you’re experiencing, their specific locations, and their severity and frequency. For example, is it a jabbing, stabbing, aching, or shooting pain? Does it occur only during movements or is it always present?
  • To assess your current medications and the need for changes, you may be asked what benefits and drawbacks you’ve noticed since starting, adjusting, or stopping a medication.
  • To assess the appropriateness of taking a specific medication like methotrexate, you may be asked how many alcoholic beverages you consume. It’s important to be honest because medications like methotrexate can increase the likelihood of liver issues, and regular alcohol consumption will further elevate that risk. 

The result and follow-up of your visit may include:

  • A request for an in-person physical exam or blood test
  • A prescription change
  • A patient survey to discuss your experience
  • A discussion about when you should book another appointment and whether it will be in-person or via telehealth

A Word From Verywell

Telehealth visits for RA patients may seem a bit daunting at first, but doing some preparations ahead of time will help ensure you have a successful experience. After your first visit, you may find the comfort and convenience of visiting medical professionals via telehealth to be so great that you decide to continue.

If you are still unsure whether telehealth is right for you, ask your doctor for their professional opinion and which options they’d recommend for you. Remember that these service providers are here to help make your experience as easy and stress-free as possible, so do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions in advance of your first appointment. 

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  1. Simple Tasks. 2020 Rheumatic Disease Patient Survey.

  2. Howren A, Aviña-Zubieta JA, Rebić N, Dau H, Gastonguay L, Shoania K, Davidson E, De Vera MA. Virtual rheumatology appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic: an international survey of perspectives of patients with rheumatic diseases. Clin Rheumatol. 2020 Aug 15;39(11):3191-3193. doi:10.1007/s10067-020-05338-3

  3. American College of Rheumatology. Telemedicine position statement.