Difference Between Rheumatologist & Orthopedic Doctor

Sep 11, 2019

Explore the path to becoming a rheumatologist or an orthopedic doctor. Learn the differences in salary, job outlook and responsibilities of each position.

Comparing Rheumatologist to Orthopedic Doctor

Unlike a rheumatologist, an orthopedic doctor is a trained surgeon. Rheumatologists specialize in chronic immune system diseases such as autoimmune disorders while orthopedic doctors can treat injuries and physical traumas.

Job Title Education Requirements Median Salary (2019)* Job Growth (2018-2028)**
Rheumatologist Bachelor's Degree and Medical Degree $205,466 7% (Physicians and Surgeons)
Orthopedic Doctor Bachelor's Degree and Medical Degree $376,970 (Orthopedic Surgeons) 7% (Physicians and Surgeons)

Source: *, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of a Rheumatologist vs. Orthopedic Doctor

Both rheumatologists and orthopedic doctors are trained in the treatment of the musculoskeletal system. They both use nonsurgical treatments such as medicines and physical therapy. Orthopedic doctors may also use surgical treatments such as joint repair, arthroscopy, fusion and soft tissue repair. Both professionals must complete a residency training, but rheumatologists undergo a 3-year program, while an orthopedic doctor must attend a 5-year program. Afterwards, a rheumatologist is required to enroll in a 2-3 year fellowship while an additional 1-2 year fellowship is optional for an orthopedic doctor. Rheumatologists and orthopedic doctors must obtain a license to practice and must continue to stay up-to-date on their medical education.


A rheumatologist can train in internal medicine or pediatrics. He/she specializes in diseases such as osteoarthritis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic back pain, tendinitis and lupus. Rheumatologists work in outpatient clinics and can also be associated with a hospital and assess the admitted patients. Rheumatologists may choose to conduct research on rheumatic diseases.

Job responsibilities of a rheumatologist include:

  • Compile patient medical history
  • Perform physical exams
  • Order and evaluate laboratory and radiographic tests
  • Design treatment plans for patients
  • Advise patients on lifestyle and coping mechanisms for chronic diseases

Orthopedic Doctor

An orthopedic doctor can practice general orthopedics, specialize in a specific area of the body or type of care (such as sports medicine) or provide services in multiple areas. He/she can manage a solo or group practice (which requires business acumen), pursue an academic practice (which requires teaching, research and patient care), join the military (which may require constant change in location but boasts low financial risk) or work in multi-specialty clinics. Work hours and earning potential depend on locale (urban or rural), specialty and type of setting. Some orthopedic doctors may choose to not perform surgery in their practice and focus on alternative treatments.

Job responsibilities of an orthopedic doctor include:

  • Collect information on patient's symptoms and medical history
  • Conduct physical exams of patients
  • Study diagnostic tests such as x-rays or blood tests
  • Select treatment options, including surgical or nonsurgical methods
  • Rehabilitate patients from injuries
  • Guide patients on prevention of injury or progression of diseases

Related Careers

Those interested in the rheumatologist role may want to learn about immunologists, as both treat diseases of the immune system. If you are interested in the orthopedic doctor role, then you may be intrigued by the sports medicine physician role, as both positions specialize in physical injuries.

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